More than 400 people have inquired about the Community College of Allegheny County's free tuition since the college announced its offer early last month. The program starts in March and is open only to county residents who have lost their jobs since January 2008, a CCAC spokesman said.
At least 170 people have contacted Westmoreland County Community College about a similar program announced earlier this month, a spokeswoman said. That program, which starts in May, is open to residents in Westmoreland and Fayette counties.
The schools will pay for any expenses that aren't covered by financial aid.
"I would've never thought about coming to community college, and now I will," said Mary Beth Andrasko, 47, of Scott. She's considering enrolling in the emergency medical technician or phlebotomy program at CCAC.
There are eight eligible degree programs at Westmoreland and five at CCAC. The courses range from business to nursing to information technology.
When Mary Beth Andrasko's job with US Airways took a nosedive, she seized the opportunity to have a career that would take flight.
She enrolled in the New Choices/New Options program at the Community College of Allegheny County.
"I'm going to spend the second half of my life doing what I really, really enjoy doing," said Andrasko, 47, of Scott, who was laid off last summer after 22 years with the airline's customer service and inventory departments. "Life is way too short to be doing something you don't want to be doing."
New Choices/New Options is a free, state-funded program for displaced workers, single parents and those interested in nontraditional careers. Students are taught basic computer, interviewing and interpersonal skills.
The program is at 24 colleges and universities across the state, according to Pennsylvania Women Work, a nonprofit organization that oversees the initiative. The state allocated about $2.5 million for the program this year, executive director Mary Ann Eisenreich said.
Interest in the program statewide has risen of late because of a rash of layoffs, Eisenreich said.
For instance, the program at CCAC is contracted with Pennsylvania Women Work to serve 100 people each year and already had signed up 60 before its midyear point, CCAC program director Sumana Misra-Zets said.
At Carlow University, 115 students have signed up compared to 123 last year, said Nieves Stiker, director of Carlow's program. Another 27 are on the waiting list for an April class.
"People are telling us, 'I need a job, I need a job, as soon as possible, whatever,' " said Nieves Stiker, director of Carlow's program.
In 2007-08, New Choices/New Options served 2,446 participants, Eisenreich said. About 41 percent found jobs, and 42 percent chose to get additional training, she said.
A typical participant is someone who has been out of work awhile or needs to update his or her skills. Older people who want to re-enter the work force also take advantage of the program, Misra-Zets said.
"We help them with self-confidence issues," she said. "You get self-awareness to go in a good direction."
Andrasko said she was able to conquer her fear of failure.
"Fear isn't just being afraid. It's also just not taking the step," she said. "Once I started rebuilding, I had a big fear of going back to school."
Karen Litzinger, a career services professional for 25 years and owner of Litzinger Career Consulting in Swissvale, said people often have to face something like a recession or layoff before they're spurred to action.
"I've done work with individuals, and it takes something that dramatic to say, 'I have been thinking about these things, and even though this may be negative, it's really an opportunity,' " she said.
Stiker said she has seen people "walking a little taller in just a few weeks" after enrolling the New Choices program.
"We've seen incredible stories," Misra-Zets said. "People just transform their lives."