(*This op-Ed has been updated to correctly reflect the number of community colleges in New York, New Jersey and Ohio.)
By Ronald A. DiNicola
Next week, the state Board of Education will have an opportunity to set the table for a brighter future for all Pennsylvanians, and it’s critically important that they not let the moment pass them by.
On March 18, the people of Erie County hope to realize their long-held goal of establishing a local community college that will offer the affordable, accessible educational options that they will need to remain competitive in an increasingly complex and competitive global economy.
In making its case for a community college, the county of 270,000 is pushing its storied history. It is where a thriving shipbuilding industry emerged after Erie’s central military role in the war of 1812.
Later, sharecroppers who migrated from the deep south and the children of Europe’s poor built what the Wall Street Journal recently called America’s factory hub. It is the place where aircraft and weapons that won World War II rolled off the assembly lines at a record pace, many made by women, and it is where Edison and Diesel came to design and build the locomotives that still connect the world.
With a community college in place, Erie County feels it will be able to build on this legacy. Establishing Erie County Community College would be an important step towards finally realizing the goal, first laid out in 1963, of ensuring that every Pennsylvanian has access to a local community college.
Initially, Pennsylvania planned to establish 28 community colleges across the Commonwealth, but more than 50 years later, it is still only halfway there.
Other states, including contiguous states, have done a much better job of ensuring that all their residents have access to the life-changing benefits of a community college. *New York has 40 community colleges, Ohio has 24, New Jersey has 19, and Maryland has 16. Pennsylvania has fewer community colleges per capita than West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi and it’s been more than 25 years since the last one was established.
In Erie County, a coalition of business, civic, education, and faith leaders have come together and worked hard to develop a plan to finally establish a local community college that will provide a pathway to economic mobility for its citizens, but so far their efforts have been stymied by Harrisburg politics.
The Community College Act of 1963 laid out a clear process for establishing new community colleges. The Department of Education found that the Erie County application met every single requirement under state law, and that the region “is not adequately served by established institutions of higher learning.”
Despite historically high poverty levels, the people of Erie County have been working hard to ensure a brighter future in a changing economy. New construction projects totaling more than $500 million are underway on its waterfront, and it has received national acclaim for its success in utilizing opportunity zones. Yet without access to a local community college, Erie County citizens will lack the skills necessary to compete in the global economy.
According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, over 60% of all jobs will require some postsecondary education, and without a community college, Erie County runs the risk of falling behind. President Obama called community colleges the “unsung hero of the education system in America.”
Such colleges are uniquely positioned to help develop such a workforce by collaborating with local businesses to develop custom tailored offerings that meet the specific needs of the region and can nimbly adapt to changing economic conditions.
Unfortunately, Senator Joseph Scarnati, one of the most powerful politicians in Pennsylvania, has been standing in the way of Erie County’s pending application. His actions not only hurt Erie County they threaten to wall off community college growth in Pennsylvania forever. Sen. Scarnati’s conduct is more troubling in light of the fact that his senatorial district is served by a community college.
Erie County’s fortunes on March 18 will speak volumes as to whether Harrisburg is genuinely committed to building a world class workforce and to utilizing the tools of expanded community college access so roundly embraced by red state and blue state governors, mayors and municipal planners across the nation.
Ronald A. DiNicola is the Co-Founder of Empower Erie, a non-profit, volunteer organization that is a leader in Erie County’s effort to establish a community college.