A new community college is the economic development engine that Erie needs to succeed | Opinion

The Erie, Pa. bayfront (Photo via Flickr Commons)

By Diana Polson

Pennsylvania has a large “investment deficit,” shortchanging the next generation and the state by failing to put resources into 21st century education and infrastructure.  Now regional leaders from Erie County have stepped forward to address a telling illustration of Pennsylvania’s investment deficit—the lack of a community college in the state’s 4th most populous city.

The state now needs to do its part by approving Erie’s application for a community college at a Harrisburg meeting Thursday. For the sake of Erie and all Pennsylvanians, the State Board of Education should give the Erie County community college proposal two enthusiastic thumbs up.

Here’s why:

According to U.S. News and World Report, Pennsylvania ranks dead last among the 50 states for higher education, sunk by a combination of high tuition and high student debt. Behind that ranking is the state’s 47th place for per capita investment in higher education. Pennsylvania also ranks 40th for the share of adults 25-64 with education beyond high school.

Ranking 40th for educational attainment translates into lower wages and income for individuals and slower economic growth for the state and its regions.

The problem is worse for rural parts of the state. Thirty-five of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have a smaller share of adults with education beyond high school than any state.

One big reason for Pennsylvania’s low educational attainment is that—like Erie—many parts of the state do not have community colleges.

Twenty-eight of the state’s 67 counties do not have any access to community college. Another 22 counties have branch campuses of community colleges, but students pay much higher tuition because their county does not support the college. Only 17 Pennsylvania counties (or their school districts) do sponsor community colleges, allowing residents to pay low tuition.

Erie County is the most glaring example of a Pennsylvania place without a community college. The county has been a manufacturing powerhouse with dynamic companies such as Wabtec (formerly GE Transportation). Yet the closest community college in Pennsylvania is 100 miles away in Butler County.

As manufacturing has shrunk to less than one in 10 jobs, Erie has been doubly handicapped. It struggles to deliver skills to remaining manufacturers. It also has challenges delivering skills for middle-skill “post-industrial” jobs—in eds and meds, business and professional services, and other technology industries.

Now an all-star cast from the local business community has rallied behind the push for an Erie County community college.

And in June 2017, county government backed the plan for the college, which would offer tuition of $3,528 per year. A new study projects community college graduates would receive an average wage increase of $6,116 annually over their careers.

Erie will focus its initial community college programs on occupations that lead to college credit AND industry recognized credentials—in good-paying jobs in which businesses are hungry for new talent. In its first year of operations the college will have 10 majors ranging from accounting to welding.

Another positive: the new community college will leverage significant federal funding through Pell grants that more than cover tuition for some low-income students. Pennsylvania students at public colleges currently receive about $256 million less annually than they should based on Pennsylvania’s population.

In other words, because Pennsylvania lacks affordable, accessible Pell-eligible programs in much of the state—programs such as provided by community colleges—our state leaves nearly as much federal money “on the table” as the annual state budget provides to existing community colleges.

Erie County’s initiative thus points to a broader opportunity for Pennsylvania. Our state can access major federal funding to plug the hole in the state’s community college infrastructure.

In northern Pennsylvania, the state can do this by building on a foundation laid by the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC) championed by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Eight of nine counties served by this college (Erie is the exception) are sparsely populated. In them, an innovative model of simultaneous “real time video conferencing” from multiple sites can help recruit large enough classes for cost-effective delivery.

In Erie and in Pennsylvania’s rural higher education deserts, the lack of community colleges makes economic revitalization harder.

Pennsylvania should approve Erie’s proposal to invest in a brighter future—and then use this example to inspire a broader effort to provide affordable accessible post-secondary education a reality for all northern and rural Pennsylvania.

Diana Polson is a Pittsburgh-based policy analyst for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive think-tank with headquartered in Harrisburg.