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

The Erie, Pa. skyline (Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

(*This story has was updated on March 11, 2020 to correct an attribution error in a quote from Erie County Council member Carl Anderson. Anderson’s remarks originally appeared in The Times-News of Erie. We regret the error.)

ERIE, Pa. — After a more than two-year wait, Erie County officials could learn later this month whether the state Board of Education will greenlight their plan to create Pennsylvania’s newest community college.

Win or lose, the  state board’s 10 a.m. session on March 18 at Erie’s Blasco Library could well end up being the final chapter of a saga that began in June 2017 when Erie’s County Council and County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper, with the support of local lawmakers and organizations, first pitched their plan to build a community college in the county. 

Since then, despite the support of Gov. Tom Wolf, the project has run into opposition at the highest levels of state government. But supporters, who have called the development of a free-standing community college critical to Erie’s future, have pressed on with their efforts.

“There is an urgent need for affordable, accessible post-secondary job training in Erie County. The existing post-secondary education and job-training opportunities are either very expensive or are not readily accessible to a large percentage of those in need of them,” Empower Erie, the non-profit at the forefront of the push for Erie’s community college, said in its mission statement for the project. 

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The project got a hearing before the state board in Harrisburg last November, where both sides of the debate expected a final determination. They came away disappointed. 

According to the minutes of that Nov. 13 meeting, the board noted that  “three factors – sufficient population to sustain enrollment, sufficient local wealth, and inadequate service to the region by existing higher education providers – must be met in order for the plan to be approved,”

The board concluded that another session in Erie, where county officials could present witnesses and the board could pose questions respectful of all participants and would ensure the board has the necessary information to make an informed decision based on the legal requirements of the School Code.

Right now, there are 14 community colleges in  Pennsylvania’s state system. Erie is the largest metropolitan area without one. The Erie County community college would be the first added to the state-wide system since 1994. 

The obstacles

The project faces a powerful opponent in Pennsylvania State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. 

The northwestern lawmaker, who announced Feb. 12 that he would not seek re-election after 20 years in the General Assembly, is a founder of Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC). 

He has urged the state to decline Erie’s proposal for a community college. Scarnati claims a stand-alone community college would be “fiscally irresponsible,” placing an added burden on taxpayers.

Opponents have also argued that a standalone community college is unnecessary in a region that’s already home to four, four-year universities, including Mercyhurst University and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. 

Scarnati and his allies are instead pushing for a partnership between Erie County and the with 3-year-old Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, a private institution that provides technical training and certification programs to nine of Pennsylvania’s counties — including Cameron, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, McKean, Potter, Venango and Warren counties — through a blend of digital and face-to-face teaching methods.

Supporters of the community college have argued that a standalone facility is critical because it would provide classroom space for face-to-face instruction. If the county partnered with NPRC, it would have to purchase space and then lease it back to the school, which does not own or maintain any physical locations, said Dr. Joseph T. Nairn, NPRC’s president. 

All instructional spaces are leased or in partnership with another organization. There are 27 current locations, not all of which are active this semester,” he continued. 

What’s next?

In the past, NPRC has leased space from Erie’s Gannon University who provided physical facilities for NPRC students as well as a curriculum. Nairn clarified that, “The agreement was not a ‘lease,’ but an agreement under which Gannon partnered with NPRC to deliver particular Gannon programs at a negotiated tuition rate to students in the NPRC service area.”  

Nairn continued, “The initial offerings were Interdisciplinary studies and Business administration, later expanded to include Early Childhood Education and Criminal Justice based on identified needs.”

The Department of Education approved NPRC’s own curriculum, which the institution began instructing during the spring 2020 semester. The school NPRC is currently working towards accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, boasts the institution on their website. 

In 2017, the county met with NPRC to discuss a potential partnership, but made no official arrangement or memorandum. Following the meeting, Erie County submitted the 55-page proposal for a community college to the state Board of Education.

It appears that Erie will be home to another college in the near future, though if this will be a publicly-funded stand-alone institution or yet another satellite of NPRC remains to be seen. 

“What people in Erie County have not understood is that this is not quote-unquote ‘a public hearing,’” said Erie County Council member Carl Anderson, *according to the Times-News of Erie. “This is not just anybody walks up to the mic and gets their three or five minutes. This is an evidentiary hearing.”

The state board is expected to vote on the matter on March 19. 

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