Higher education shouldn’t be a ‘luxury’: Pa. community college advocates rally for more state funding

Anisha Robinson Keeys, of Norristown, Pa., and a member of the Montgomery County Community College Board of Trustees, speaks during a rally for increased community college funding at the Pa. Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

When Andrew Helmer looks at Pennsylvania’s 14 public community colleges, he sees more than just campuses. He sees “reservoirs of knowledge.”

“I know what community colleges do to train our employees of the future,” Helmer, the vice-president of human resources at Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, said Tuesday. He joined dozens of students, business leaders, and community college presidents to press for more state funding for the two-year schools.

Helmer, who graduated from Harrisburg Area Community College, before going to on to obtain both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, said community colleges fill a critical “void” for students seeking an affordable education.

“As a community college graduate myself, I know first-hand the value that a community college can have,” he said. “It truly enabled me to do whatever I wanted to do in my career, in my education.”

State support for community colleges would hold steady at current levels of $239 million under Gov. Tom Wolf’s fiscal 2019-20 budget plan. But the Democratic administration has proposed an $8 million program called “Stay in PA” that would provide grants of up to $2,500 to community college students and graduates to get them to stay in the Keystone State when they finish their education.

Community college advocates, including Sen. Andrew Dinniman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, say that money would be better put to a bump in base funding, since community college students and graduates tend to be plugs — not leaks — in the so-called “brain drain” of young people fleeing.

“Is that the best use of that money?” Dinniman, of Chester County, told the Capital-Star. “Or is there a better way to help those institutions?”

Speakers at Tuesday’s rally in the Capitol rotunda, including Anisha Robinson Keeys, of Norristown, Pa., repeatedly stressed the quality and affordability of a community college education.

Robinson Keeys, who sits on the board of trustees for Montgomery County Community College, said students who transfer into a four-year school from a community college can expect to save $20,000 on the cost of their education.

She also highlighted the success of the state’s KEYS, or Keystone Education Yields Success program, which allows parents on cash assistance to meet federal work requirements by enrolling in one of Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges.

Tuesday’s rally comes amid a broader policy discussion this budget season over the importance of workforce development and ensuring Pennsylvania workers are trained for the jobs that exist now — and the ones that have yet to be invented.

Those questions were front and center in a 11-bill package, backed by both Republicans and Democrats, that sailed through the state House last month. Republican leaders hope the legislation will be an easy sell to Wolf, who highlighted the need for increased job-training during his budget address.

Stephanie Shanblatt, the president of Bucks Community College and chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, pointed out that, next year, two-thirds of the jobs that require a post-secondary education will be in occupations that “did not exist five or 10 years ago.”

The debate over community college funding — and the increased emphasis on job-training — also comes amid an ongoing debate over the utility of a traditional, four-year degree; rising tuition costs and the crushing debt that many students take on to pay for college; and the declining enrollment at some state-owned universities.

Republican Sens. Ryan Aument, of Lancaster County, and Pat Browne, of Lehigh County, are backing the creation of a “Public Higher Education Funding Commission” that would study all those issues, as well as come up with a funding formula for the state’s taxpayer-funded institutions of higher learning. Aument and Browne respectively chair the Senate Education and Appropriations committees.

According to Dinniman, who was a college professor before his election to General Assembly, that work is critical.

“There will be a time in the next decade that our students’ skills will be out of sync with employers,” he said. “There needs to be a discussion about totally restructuring [higher] education.”

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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