Bryan Self, 18, conducts research in the library at Kenai Peninsula College for a mass communications class he is taking this semester.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Lindsay Hutchins would like to finish college with a degree in physical therapy and has plans to attend Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif.
For the time being, though, the 19-year-old student from Soldotna is getting her college career started a lot closer to home with classes at Kenai Peninsula College, a community college in Soldotna that is part of the University of Alaska Anchorage system.
"I decided for my first year, I'd stay close to home and get used to the college thing," Hutchins said.
Hutchins is one of a growing number of what the school calls traditional age students students between the ages of 18 and 24 who have made the decision to get a taste of college without leaving the Kenai Peninsula.
According to information provided by the school, the number of traditional age students at Kenai Peninsula College has nearly doubled over the past five years, from 460 in 2000 to 870 this year.
Bill Howell, student services director at KPC, cited several reasons for the trend, including an improved image of the college among Kenai Peninsula high school students.
"It's seen as a viable alternative to packing up and going to UAA or UAF, or heading Outside," Howell said.
Howell attributed the school's improved reputation to the JumpStart program, through which high school seniors can take up to six credits at a reduced tuition rate.
"That program has helped expose students to KPC. When they come here, they see how good KPC is, and they see KPC is a viable place to start their college career," Howell said.
Other reasons Howell offered for the increase in traditional age students were interest in new programs being offered at the school and KPC's efforts to reach out to high schools and home-schooled students.
KPC now offers degrees in paramedical technology, business and digital arts. The school also offers programs in process technology, and the Occupational Safety and Health program recently was assumed from UAA by the school's Anchorage extension site.
The school also serves a large number of students through its Mining and Petroleum Training Service, a noncredit program that provides industry workers with training.
Kelly Isham, 21, of Kenai is a student in the paramedic program and also works part time as a firefighter in Nikiski.
"It allows me to go to school while staying proficient. It's on-the-job training, and it's cheaper than going to school in Anchorage," Isham said.
Howell said the financial aid nights conducted by KPC staff aren't recruiting tools, but the presentations have had the effect of raising awareness of what the school has to offer for students venturing off to college for the first time.
"It certainly helps raise our visibility. We've also tried to reach out to a lot of the home-schoolers in the area. We've really tried to reach out to them and make them see KPC is here for them," Howell said.
Of course, the topic of financial aid leads to another big reason for the increase in enrollment at KPC. While tuition is the same at KPC and UAA, students attending KPC can save some money on housing costs if they choose to live at home. Also, the cost of a four-year degree at most private institutions across the country has skyrocketed in recent years, and students can complete their general education requirements at KPC before making that investment.
"I think a lot of people are looking at it that way, doing a cost-benefit analysis," Howell said.
If a school is not 10 times better, it might not be worth paying 10 times as much at least not right off the bat, Howell said.
Indeed, several students interviewed said financial considerations were the biggest reason they chose KPC, and added that the school's other selling points, such as small class sizes, were nice perks.
"I got a lot of scholarships, so my first year is free," said Kala Fowler, 18, of Soldotna. "I'm hoping to go to UAA to go into the nursing program. I just wanted to get my generals done this year it's a lot cheaper, and it's the same curriculum."
Fowler said she's been able to keep a part-time job at a local business, and house-sitting is helping her make the transition from living at home to being on her own.
Of the traditional age students who start their college careers at KPC, many of them also finish. Howell said 57.6 percent of the school's first-time, full-time freshmen returned for their sophomore year in 2004. While that number is 5 1/2 percent better than UAA, Howell noted that statistic does not reflect the typical student at KPC.
Many students, he said, take four years to complete their two-year degrees as they take classes part time around work schedules or start families. He said the school has many "stop-outs" students who haven't dropped out, but have put their education on hold with plans to pick it up later.
"We actually have good persistence. Most people will get a degree," Howell said.
Other students, like Hutchins, will complete their general education requirements and finish a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution, either at UAA, where all their KPC credits count, or elsewhere.
"We're a good start," Howell said.
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