Erie County’s request for a community college put on hold

Category:  Opinions
Friday, November 22nd, 2019 at 11:06 AM

The question of an Erie-based community college remains unanswered.

This comes after the Pennsylvania State Board of Education (SBE) refused to move forward with their scheduled vote on the county’s application at the Nov. 7 meeting, saying the county’s application had still not met certain requirements.

Instead, we still have no decision and the board of education is giving the county six months to revise the application. After six months, the board will come to Erie and hopefully decide whether they can move forward with a vote.

The county’s journey to establish a community college has been a long one. It officially began in June 2017, when, after years of discussion at the county level, the county board approved, by a vote of 4-2, to approve an application for a community college. A few days after the board voted yes on the community college, they submitted that application to the SBE.

Since then, it’s been an uphill battle, and after nearly two years, a special subcommittee of the SBE was formed to read over the application. In the meantime, the county had a brief waltz with the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC), which offers instruction via a mixture of online and in-person methods, and would only require the county to find a place to house the college. Talks with NPRC came to an end in September 2019 when the county and NPRC were unable to come to an agreement.

So that brings us to now. On Thursday, Joe Scarnati, one of the biggest opponents of the county’s application, said in an interview with the Erie Times News that the application is “built on pixie dust.” So, with the county given these six months to reevaluate their application, Erie County residents are asking themselves, “do we really need a community college?”

My answer? I’m torn.

On one hand, I see the census statistics, which are referenced in the county’s application for a community college: Erie County is home to the second poorest zip code in the entirety of the U.S., and while 40 percent of Erie residents graduate high school, only 20 percent of them go on to attain a bachelor’s degree.

A college education — especially in an area that has seen a decrease in manufacturing jobs, and an increase in diverse sector jobs in the last 50 years — would help equip this area’s population with the skills and knowledge that they need in order to become marketable in a changing economy.

But then I see the oversaturation of educational institutions that are available in this area. We have Edinboro University — main campus and Porreco; Mercyhurst University; Gannon University; Penn State Behrend; Great Lake Institute of Technology; Triangle Tech; and NPRC (which still offers students in the county the ability to enroll although the county didn’t sponsor them financially as the official community college).

Five educational institutions for a population of 274,541.

According to the final draft of the county’s application, Erie will have to split $4.6 million in capital costs (related to the purchase of land, equipment, buildings, etc.) in order to provide a brick and mortar meeting location.

Additionally, the operating costs are projected to be $7 million a year, with that number set to increase to $14 million a year by the college’s fifth year of operation.

That’s a huge amount of money for a county that is already in financial difficulty to foot for a community college. The SBE has been road blocking this for the past two years, and county officials themselves have disagreed on building it for the past 10. Now, we can add costs onto the list of concerns.

Taxpayers are already giving their hard-earned income to the established educational institutions that we have in this area, why add more of a financial burden to their wallets?

I think that rather than push forward with the establishment of a community college, the county should work with existing institutions in order to work out an initiative for lower tuition costs across the board. This is something that universities across the county have been participating in.

Just last month, the University of Connecticut announced that it would be offering free tuition to low income students. The University of Oregon, as well as the Minnesota State Board of Education, also announced this year that they are beginning to look into lower tuition initiatives in order to make higher education more affordable.

The Erie County council has good intentions, and obviously they have the dedication and commitment to serving its residents with ways out of the poverty that plagues the region. Instead of committing to a path that is obviously not supported by state administrators, the county should begin to look into alternative solutions to the higher education affordability issues in this region.

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