‘The whole … premise is flawed’: Scarnati questions the math on Erie’s community college plan

Senate president pro tempore Joe Scaranti, R-Jefferson, speaks with members of his party in the background. Source: Sen. Joe Scarnati Facebook.

ERIE, Pa. — One of the Pennsylvania Legislature’s most powerful Republican lawmakers has  questioned the math behind a long-sought proposal to build a community college in Erie. And he says the money could be better spent on providing scholarships for Erie County residents to attend the already established Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC).

“The whole financial premise of this endeavor is flawed,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati told the Capital-Star in a recent interview.

Supporters of the community college, who first began their fight more than three years ago, have argued that “(they) don’t see it that way.” 

Ron DiNicola, a co-founder of Empower Erie, the nonprofit pushing for a community college alongside Erie County, said: “Senator Scarnati has deep ideological views. I think his idea about a regional college was a good one, but his efforts to prevent Erie County from having a community college is a bad one.”

“The state board of education and their report said there is an unmet need, and that included the courses being offered at NPRC,” Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper told the Capital-Star. “So I don’t know why the senator is anti-education for Erie County residents, but he is the reason why we are at where we’re at.”

With the funding challenges facing higher education today, and the unsustainability of many higher educational institutions trying to keep their doors open, it would be fiscally irresponsible for Pennsylvania to establish another community college,” Scarnati, R-Jefferson, wrote in  an op-ed published on his Senate website.

Scarnati has long argued that Erie County already has a community college — the online Northern Pennsylvania Regional College. It’s just not in the traditional brick-and-mortar form that Erie county officials and Empower Erie have sought for the last three years. 

 

“NPRC is doing the same thing (a community college does),” Scarnati said. “You don’t need a stand-alone community college. You can go to a classroom anywhere in Erie and be instructed.” 

The Back Story

Scarnati assisted in founding NPRC. “I was approached by Pennsylvania educators … it was not my brainchild,” Scarnati told the Capital-Star. He believed their idea for an innovative new college plan was feasible, “but needed legislation,” which he assisted in passing.

When Erie County submitted its application for a community college in June 2017, Scarnati said he was troubled. He said he continues to be as the board’s final vote has been delayed due to restrictions of public gatherings due to COVID-19.

The vote was scheduled for Mar. 19, following the Mar. 18 hearing at the Blasco Public Library in Erie County. A date has yet to be set for the postponed hearing and vote. 

The Numbers

“The whole financial premise of this endeavor is flawed,” Scarnati told the Capital-Star. “From the very beginning, the numbers that they put out are flawed. When you base the whole initial premise of a community college on flawed numbers, the financing is flawed going forward.” 

A Capital-Star analysis of the Empower Erie plan found several inconsistencies in its student enrollment projections and tuition costs.

In its original 2017 plan, Empower Erie projected, “…that in the first year of operation a total of 1,529 students will utilize the school for education and training.” 

Of these students, 229 would be full-time equivalent (FTE), 700 part time, 200 during summer and 400 enrolled in specific job training. 

‘Anytime Joe would speak, members listened.’ After two decades in Harrisburg, Scarnati leaves a complicated legacy

This number was based on a review of Erie high school graduates and the county’s population between age 25 and 64, as well as the American Community College Survey for Educational Attainment Rate and the 2014-2015 Pennsylvania Department of Education graduation rate for public schools.

Elsewhere, the document shows  projected credit enrollment for the fall of 2018 to be 226 full-time students, and 700 part-time. 

“Using a Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) of 24 semester credit hours over two semesters, these students are projected to generate 664 FTE. When summer and occupational/job training enrollment is included, the total projected enrollment for the 2018 – 2019 academic year is 769 FTE.”

At the request of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the county submitted an updated plan on Dec. 21, 2018. 

That plan “… projects year 1 FTE student enrollment at 500 students, compared with 769 students in year 1 of the original plan. Enrollment is projected to increase by 17 to 19 students each year, with year 5 student enrollment projected to reach 573 students, compared with 1,618 students projected for year 5 of the original plan,” according to the official document, found on Erie County’s website. 

According to Erie County’s revised plan,“the revised enrollment projections require a modest tuition increase from the original plan.” 

“Under the revised plan, the full time tuition is expected to be $3,000 and gradually increasing to $3,700 in year five. The tuition for out-of-county will be $6,000 and gradually increasing to $7,440 in the fifth year,” DiNicola told the Capital-Star. “The tuition for part-time Erie County students will be $125 a credit and for out-of-county students it will be $250.”

The revised plan however states, “The community college would remain the most affordable option in the region for post-secondary education with first-year tuition and fees projected at $3,538 or $1,012 less than the annual tuition and fees at the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College.” 

Despite the detailed breakdown of costs in the plan’s “Five-year financial summary,” the number $3,538 never appears. Instead, the total cost of FTE is $3,528 according to the document. 

What happened?

For Scarnati, those discrepancies raise questions.

“I live in a world in Harrisburg where you better dot your I’s and cross your T’s,” he told the Capital-Star. “The state board of education is in the business of making decisions about accreditation, licensing, and higher education and K-12. I’m in the business of making decisions on finances. When we sit down at the state budget and look at the finances, we are finding that every higher ed institution — even our own state owned system — we are under tremendous pressure to sustain it.

I would love …  wouldn’t we all love — to have a community college in every county, but we don’t,” he continued. “It’s not sustainable and that’s why we came up with the model of the NPRC; so the taxpayers aren’t on the hook for an experiment that isn’t going to work.” 

Erie County Finance Director Jim Sparber said the $10 discrepancy was a typographical error in the document. 

Waiting Game: With state Board of Ed meeting looming, Erie County’s community college debate may soon be over

The three-number difference between the number of FTE students in  the original plan is another error, Sparber said.

Sparber noted that the numbers in the first plan were not being used for any current planning regarding the community college or the upcoming vote.

As for the inconsistencies in the second plan, Sparber told the Capital-Star, “You hope you don’t see a typo in a document like this, but I can’t think of what else it would be.”

The person responsible for the numbers in both of Erie County’s plans for a community college is an accountant at Mahoney Reed Scarpitti and Co., and Erie-based accounting firm. 

He may know where the number 1,618 is coming from, but “we have no idea when we’ll hear from him,” Sparber — who has tried reaching out to him on the matter since the Capital-Star’s inquiry — said. 

Without the accountant’s input, Sparber said he could only assume that those were  typos, though he was able to explain the issue of 1,529 students vs. 769 — 1,529 students in the original plan is referring to all those in attendance, not just full-time students. 

Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.