Community Colleges: The Missing Link for Rural PA
A high school graduate who just barely made it through, or one who wants to go to a state university and can’t afford it.
A working parent who wants to learn the skills needed to obtain a better paying job.
A displaced worker or veteran in need of retraining to get back into the workforce.
A small employer looking for skilled workers to support an expansion of his or her business.
Community colleges are a great option for all of these people…unless, of course, they live in rural Pennsylvania.
A 2011 study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee found community college services lacking in 25 of the state’s 26 rural counties. Nearly every other state in the nation provides statewide coverage by community colleges, no doubt because their leaders understand the vital role these institutions play in helping to meet the demand for increasing and ever-changing workforce skills.
When Pennsylvania’s community college system was created in the 1960s, the Board of Education envisioned 28 institutions serving the Commonwealth. But the framework for creating the colleges simply doesn’t work for rural areas, so only half of them ever came to be. And if you look at a map of where the state’s community colleges are located, you’ll find a giant V-shaped void in the central and northern tier of the state…the very heart of rural Pennsylvania.
Community colleges are attractive for a variety of reasons. They offer open admission, low tuition, and a variety of educational programs that build career skills or prepare students for a four-year degree. They also have the flexibility to adjust educational programming based on local or regional needs.
While any student in rural PA is welcome to enroll in one of the existing community colleges, they will pay at least twice as much in tuition as those who live within a school district that sponsors a public community college. Those higher tuition rates, combined with greater travel distances, often put a community college education out of their financial reach.
That’s why I worked with Sen. Joe Scarnati and the Education Consortium of the Upper Allegheny to introduce legislation creating a rural community college pilot program to serve 11 northwestern and northcentral Pennsylvania counties.
Even though everyone seems to agree rural students need these services, the proposal has been met with significant resistance by the very people you’d think would champion it – the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. It seems these officials are concerned about the program taking away from their funding (it does not) or infringing on their turf. But if you’re not providing services here, it’s not your turf. So let’s talk about doing what’s best for our students and our region.
Rural Pennsylvania is struggling with declining populations, especially among our youth. Our incomes are lower, and job opportunities are declining. Bringing community college services to areas like this could be a catalyst in the effort to rebuild our economy, not just in rural Pennsylvania but in the entire Commonwealth. Most importantly, it would give our students the educational options they need and deserve.
The state House recently adopted a resolution designating April as “Pennsylvania Community College Month.” It calls on all citizens to “recognize, appreciate and support the contributions these institutions make to their communities and our Commonwealth.”
Yes, the opportunities provided by community colleges are great – it’s just too bad they aren’t available, accessible or affordable to the vast majority of students in rural Pennsylvania.