Distance Education Grant Makes Online Degrees & Certificates More Affordable

In 2015, Chelsey Sirmons IV decided to change his life. Taking advantage of the Pennsylvania State Grant distance education pilot program, he was able to enroll at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in 2017 and begin reshaping his future.

In long-term recovery himself, Mr. Sirmons started at CCAC by pursuing a certificate in the college’s drug and alcohol program. He is now continuing his education, working towards his associate degree with plans to transfer to Chatham University after graduation and possibly attain a master’s degree thereafter.

“I think it’s time for me to help other people,” said Mr. Sirmons. “Educating myself and becoming a social worker, it’s one way for me to give back.”

The social work program is just one of nearly 20 associate degrees CCAC plans to offer in the fall 2019 semester that can be completed entirely online, in addition to many more that can be completed partially online. Students from anywhere can enroll in these courses because they do not need to physically travel to a location to access education, removing a major barrier some students face.

Mr. Sirmons receives grant money to subsidize some of the cost of his education through a distance education pilot program administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, or PHEAA.

“The grant makes everything more affordable. Without the grant, I’d have to take out — and eventually pay off — more student loans,” shared Mr. Sirmons. “Being a nontraditional student, distance education allows me to complete assignments on my time and improves my state of mind. My family is proud of me.”

During the State Grant distance education pilot program, increasing numbers of students at Pennsylvania’s community colleges sought financial assistance through the program, with 7,690 students receiving more than $7 million to support their postsecondary attainment goals. Act 5 of 2018 allows students who enroll in online programs to access the State Grant Program, thereby providing financial support to many thousand more Commonwealth students.

Because of this, the demand for online coursework has risen significantly. Pennsylvania community colleges were quick to respond, collectively establishing more than 150 programs that can be completed entirely online.

The PHEAA Board of Directors will vote March 21 on whether to fully integrate distance education into the Pennsylvania State Grant Program. Integration will help ensure that Pennsylvania-based institutions — including the Commonwealth’s community colleges — remain an affordable option for Pennsylvania students. Without full integration, students may be denied the financial support they need to access postsecondary study simply because they choose to enroll in an online course.

“Even though I don’t physically go to the campus, I’m still a student enrolled at CCAC,” said Mr. Sirmons. “I deserve access to the same grant funds as every other Pennsylvania student.”