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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Community College Initiative Gets House Hearing

HARRISBURG – A House Education Committee public hearing Tuesday on proposed legislation to bring community college programs to rural Pennsylvania identified both support for and concerns with the concept, said Reps. Martin Causer (R-Turtlepoint) and Kathy Rapp (R-Warren).

House Bill 1701 seeks to create a rural community college pilot program serving an 11-county region of northwest and northcentral Pennsylvania.

“Two things became very clear during today’s hearing,” Causer said. “One, every single person who testified recognized the need for additional education and training opportunities in our region. And two, some in the education establishment see my proposal as one that infringes on their turf and their funding.

“That’s unfortunate, because the discussion really should be about our students in rural Pennsylvania and ensuring accessibility to affordable education and training programs,” he added.

“This is about providing the students of rural Pennsylvania with the same educational opportunities as students in other parts of the state,” Rapp said. “Our high school graduates need options. Our workers need resources to grow their skill set. Our employers need facilities that can quickly adapt to meet their workforce training needs. This is what a community college can do for our region.”

Testifying in support of the legislation were Duane A. Vicini, president of the Education Consortium of the Upper Allegheny, which has been a leader on this issue for several years; Kate Brock, executive director of the Community Education Council of Elk and Cameron Counties; Pam Streich, director of planning for the North Central Workforce Investment Board; and Dr. Randy Smith, president of the Rural Community College Alliance.

Vicini, Brock and Streich testified together as a panel, highlighting the challenges of meeting both student and employer needs in the region without the benefit of a community college. Streich noted that of the 116 high-priority occupations in the North Central Workforce Investment Area, only 29 require a bachelor’s degree or higher, while the remaining 87 require anything from prior work experience to certificate programs and associate degrees commonly offered by community colleges.

Vicini pointed to the high percentage of students in rural areas who graduate from high school and head off to a four-year college, only to leave within the first three semesters. This may be for financial reasons or because it is simply not the right environment for them; either way, a community college may have been a better option for these students had it been available to them.

Smith noted rural community colleges are growing faster than any other type of higher education. A 2005 study found technical programs offered by these colleges produce a 400 percent return on investment, and they help put people to work in jobs that pay a living wage.

Conversely, the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges and Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) expressed concerns about the legislation and its impact on existing institutions.

Elizabeth Bolden, president and CEO of the Commission for Community Colleges, testified that her organization is concerned with the fact that the bill does not require the pilot school to have the same local match that is currently required of other community colleges. Under state law, community colleges are supposed to receive 33 percent of their funding from local government, 33 percent from the state and the rest from student tuition.

According to Causer and Rapp, the local match requirement is not realistic for the state’s rural areas. That’s why the state has only 14 community colleges, rather than the 28 originally envisioned when the law was written in the 1960s.

Bolden also testified that expanding existing colleges to new locations, rather than creating a new community college, is a better option. However, students attending those branch campuses would still be paying twice as much in tuition as students living in the sponsoring school district.

The panel of testifiers from PASSHE included Dr. Peter Garland, executive vice chancellor; Dr. Karen M. Whitney, president of Clarion University of Pennsylvania; and Francis L. Hendricks, president of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. In his testimony, Garland offered a proposal to create a consortium that would comprise a group of K-12 partners including career and vocational-technical schools, community colleges, private partners and several PASSHE universities already serving the region.

Rapp questioned why, after decades of discussion about the need for better educational opportunities in rural areas, PASSHE was suddenly ready to step in and address it.

“The Education Consortium of the Upper Allegheny has been doing the leg work on this for years, and now you suddenly want to step in and do something,” Rapp said. “This is not a new problem.”

Despite concerns raised during the hearing, the lawmakers say they are as committed as ever to moving forward with the goal of bringing affordable community college programs and services to the area.

“In a region that is struggling like ours – with declining population, especially among our youth; lower-than-average income; and shrinking job opportunities – a community college program could be a catalyst in the effort to rebuild our economy in rural Pennsylvania,” Causer said.

House Bill 1701, along with its sister legislation, Senate Bill 1000 sponsored by Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-25), were introduced in response to a 2011 study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, which verified the lack of community college services in 25 of the state’s 26 rural counties. The study noted that nearly every other state in the nation provides statewide coverage by community colleges and acknowledged the vital role community colleges play in helping to meet the demand for increasing and ever-changing workforce skills. It also pointed out that rural youth who choose to enroll in one of the state’s 14 community colleges today pay at least twice as much in tuition as those who live within a school district with a public community college. Those higher tuition rates, plus greater travel distances, often make community college unaffordable to these students.

The 11-county area that would be served under the proposal includes Cameron, Crawford, Clarion, Clearfield, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, McKean, Potter, Venango and Warren counties.

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