In times of economic instability, enrollments at community colleges typically balloon. Those left without jobs, however, often cannot afford to further their education even at relatively low-cost institutions. Now, amid rising unemployment nationwide, some community colleges are waiving tuition for their local jobless.
Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa., announced  Monday that, as of next semester, it would begin waiving tuition for those recently laid off because of local business or industrial plant closings. These individuals will be able to take a maximum of 12 tuition-free credits or the financial equivalent in non-credit courses.
The college offered a similar program from 1992 to 1995 and from 2002 to 2004 in response to volatile economic conditions. Officials note that 137 and 313 students took advantage of the tuition waiver during these two prior offerings, respectively.
Arthur Scott, Northampton president, said he was unsure how many students would take advantage of the waiver next semester but noted there would be a limit. As the college is not scheduling additional sections of courses to specifically accommodate these students, the number of students able to enroll with the waiver will be limited to the number of empty seats available in sections. Though paying students are currently enrolling for next semester, Scott said students seeking the waiver will not be able to enroll until early January.
Tuition at Northampton  costs $75 per credit. If a student were to take the maximum of 12 credits, he or she would save $900 through the tuition waiver. These students will still have to pay $28 in fees per credit, Scott said, noting that other aid is available to help students who cannot cover the additional cost.
As the institution is not adding sections or additional resources to accommodate the students who accept this waiver, the waiver is viewed not as an institutional expense but as revenue lost. Scott said he anticipates over $100,000 in lost revenue next semester as a result of this waiver.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Scott said. “An institution our size will absorb this revenue lost. Would some of these students have come anyway and found a way to pay? Maybe, but others wouldn’t believe this was an opportunity. The current economic crisis is proof enough we need to do this.”
Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J. offers a comparable tuition waiver program  for local unemployed residents in conjunction with the New Jersey Department of Labor.
Susan Baechtel, Bergen spokeswoman, said the college works with the local workforce investment board to help identify the jobless who may qualify for the waiver. The board, she said, forecasts which industries and sectors are loosing jobs in an effort to guide potential students to new potential career training. Those recently laid off by Circuit City, nearly 400 of them, and the United Parcel Service locally are already being identified for the waiver, she said.
“This is the beauty and value of community college,” Baechtel said of the program.
Reading Area Community College in Reading, Penn. limits its tuition waiver  to those local residents who have been laid off within a year of applying for the program. Also, unlike some institutions where the waiver is available until a student is employed, it is only offered to eligible students for one semester of up to 13 credits.
At $74 per credit , a full-time student on the waiver could save $962. Melissa Kushner, Reading spokeswoman, said the college budgets for the waiver program and considers it an institutional expense.
From January through November this year, 107 individuals have taken advantage of the program. David Zimmerman, a Reading career services officer, said around half of these students are enrolled in courses that will lead them to either a degree or a skills certificate of some sort. Participation in the waiver is higher this year than in previous years, he said, noting that the town just witnessed the closing of the local plants of the Hershey Company and Tyco Electronics Corporation.
The tuition waiver, Zimmerman said, helps both the students and the institution. He noted that most of the credit-seeking students return to the college to continue pursuing their degree once employed and able to pay tuitiom.
“It’s good will, and it’s good PR,” Zimmerman said. “It helps the community and helps people get back into the work force. Some of them may even get a better job than what they had.”
Tuition waivers, however, are not limited to community colleges. Some four-year institutions have begun offering them as well.
Lawrence Technological University -- a private institution in Southfield, Mich. -- recently announced  that it will offer a partial waiver to local unemployed or their children, beginning next semester. Students must take at least 12 credits at the undergraduate level or 6 credits at the graduate level to qualify for the university’s “Displaced Worker Stimulus Package.” The initiative is limited to the first qualified 200 undergraduate students and 200 graduate students that apply.