Gas prices rewriting schedules at 2-year colleges

COLUMBIA, S.C.

Two-year colleges in South Carolina and around the nation are rewriting schedules so cash-strapped students can save on commuting costs.

Many are eliminating Friday classes from their traditional Monday-Wednesday-Friday school weeks, or crafting schedules that allow students to come to campus only one day a week. Schools also are opening more satellite offices so students don’t have to drive as far, or increasing online courses that mean no drives at all.

“It is a big help. Gas prices are through the roof,” said Bridget Morton, an 18-year-old freshman planning a nursing career with the help of Northeastern Technical College. Schedule changes at the Cheraw school mean one less 30-mile round-trip from her home in Chesterfield each week.

And that’s a skate of a ride compared with what Melissa Pate had last year. She’d drive 100 miles round trip a couple of times a week from her Fort Lawn home, then to work and then to classes tied to a nursing program at York Technical College.

York Tech shortened its weekly schedule in 2006 as gas prices hit $2.77 for a gallon of regular, which meant Pate only had to commute two days a week instead of three. “Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to school,” she said.

These days, the 33-year-old Pate has it even easier: She’s taking her remaining classes online and expects to earn her degree in October. It’s a good thing. A survey of 885 students done by the school this year showed gas prices are the top personal finance concern for half the students on a campus where a third drive 20 miles or more to get to class.

South Carolina colleges aren’t alone in finding ways to cut costs for students who fill seats at two-year schools.

·         Alabama Community College System Chancellor Bradley Byrne has encouraged administrators at 60 campuses to go to four-day schedules to help commuting students and those working full-time jobs. It’s about gas prices, Byrne said. “It is a pretty major factor for them, so we’re trying to make it as easy as we can and as cost effective as we can,” he said.

·         At Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts, the school’s foundation bought gas cards to help students who were having a hard time covering the cost of getting to its Haverhill and Lawrence campuses.

·         In Ohio, Owens Community College began offering a van service to carry students and is considering expanding its campus shuttle bus routes to neighboring apartment complexes, said spokesman Brad Meyer.

·         At Missouri State University-West Plains, the two-year college froze fees and clustered classes so students don’t have to be on campus on Fridays. Half the students commute about 45 miles each way. It’s a hit with faculty, too. “They like it because the students like it and it has increased enrollment,” said Chancellor Drew Bennett.

Savings from shifting schedules go beyond the gas tank, Bennett said. For instance, students with children in day care can save on that expense because they’re on campus fewer days.

In South Carolina, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College began shifting to a four-day schedule last year after surveying students. Anne Crook, the college’s president, said rising gas prices and students needing more flexibility caused the change.

A quarter of the students and faculty commute 25 to 50 miles each way. Some students said gas prices were keeping them from paying tuition and others said they were sitting out summer classes to earn money to cover education and commuting expenses. Crook said no classes on Fridays should save them $10,000 in daily commuting costs. Meanwhile, shutting down most of the school’s instructional facilities on Fridays should save about $50,000 yearly on utilities and other costs, she said.

Columbia’s Midlands Technical College is taking the four-day schedule route, too. Sonny White, the college’s president, says he wants to hold long classes on Fridays that would let students pursue degrees by only coming to campus that one day a week.

“I want to use Friday to get more people in seats,” White said.

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