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Lovell Manufacturing Company, a historic factory complex in Erie

Wikipedia Commons/Pubdog

Pennsylvania's Erie County has 10 institutions of higher education, but most are four-year colleges, private institutions or colleges that serve several counties at once.

While that might seem like enough for the estimated population of about 276,000, people in the county for years have discussed adding a community college.

After more than a decade of stops and starts, the community has come together to form Empower Erie, a group advocating for a two-year college that will be open-access, affordable and designed with the county's needs at heart.

"It has been an abiding issue," said Ron DiNicola, cofounder and director of Empower Erie.

But the debate isn't over whether another college is necessary in a state where mergers are a discussion, enrollment is declining and state funding remains among the lowest in the country.

The Pennsylvania State Board of Education was expected to vote on the college's approval in November, but instead chose to delay until after a public hearing. The hearing is scheduled for March 18.

Supporters of the proposed Erie County Community College say there is a need. About 40 percent of local residents have a high school degree, but only 16 percent have some college credits, and only 8.5 percent have an associate degree, according to U.S. Census Bureau data included in a report to the state. And while there are colleges in the area, most cost more than $10,000 in tuition and fees per year.

The state board said it could not grant an interview this week. The American Association of Community Colleges declined to comment on the issue.

Meanwhile, the manufacturing-heavy county in the northwestern corner of the state is poised for revitalization, with more than $32 million in state funding for projects along the bay front and in the city of Erie, bolstered by the creation of several economic development groups.

To get ahead of this movement, DiNicola said the community has to ensure there are enough trained workers in the area.

"The continuing concern of business manufacturing leaders is that they weren’t really able to find the workers that they need with the skills levels that they need," he said. "I think the city fathers realize there's a piece missing here, and that piece is a quality community college."

A special committee of the education board was assigned to determine the feasibility of the proposed plan, and the majority said it would "serve an unmet need to support the learning styles of traditional community college students."

Debate Gets Political

Other local institutions that offer two-year degrees see this proposal as a potential duplication of efforts.

Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, established in 2017 after a series of studies pointed to a need for two-year degrees and workforce training in the northern part of the state, serves nine communities, including Erie County.

"Erie needs a community college, yes," said Joseph Nairn, the college's founding president. "We are that community college."

The new college, which has state approval and is in the process of gaining accreditation, saves on expenses by not having a fixed campus. Instead, it leases spaces where students are either in the room with the instructor, or in the room with each other watching the instructor virtually, but in real time.

Right now, the college features five instructional sites in Erie County that have not yet met capacity. But the new institution is not yet able to accept federal student aid dollars because it remains unaccredited.

Nairn believes his college is enough to serve Erie's needs for two-year degrees. And it's legislatively mandated to do so, so a new community college won't affect its offerings in the area, he said.

The regional college was also negotiating a partnership with the Erie County Council in August to create an Erie College Center, a workforce development center. But Nairn said the two were unable to reach a mutual agreement on the plan.

DiNicola asserts that Erie County, which is the most urban and populous county among those that the regional college serves, needs its own college to address its own needs. For example, the county has relatively large minority and immigrant populations.

"Those are dimensions to Erie County that make it quantitatively and qualitatively different from the needs of other counties," he said. "It is our view that the regional college doesn’t achieve at scale what we need to achieve in Erie County."

While the regional college is more affordable than others located in the Erie area, at about $185 per credit, the proposed Erie County Community College would be even cheaper, at $105 per credit and $2,400 for a full year's tuition.

The community college would be funded through tuition, local funding from increased revenue and a local foundation, and state funding. The state dollars would come from the general fund that each year sends money to the other 14 Pennsylvania community colleges.

"The Pennsylvania Public School Code requires the governor to indicate how many community colleges can funded. We have been advised by the State Board of Education that Governor Wolf sent a letter to the State Board of Education in October of 2019 indicating that 15 community colleges can be funded in the upcoming fiscal year," Elizabeth Bolden, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, said in a statement.

The disagreement between the regional and community colleges became political shortly after the November board meeting, when Joseph Scarnati, president pro tempore of the state's Senate and a cofounder of the regional college, wrote a letter criticizing the state's review of Erie's application and called on the state board to deny it. Leaders of the county's faith community pushed back, calling his statements "an attack" and "vitriol."

"There is a danger of the process being politicized," DiNicola said. "​I’m confident that if the Board of Education puts on their education hat and focuses on, 'is this the right educational program for this community?' I think that we will win, hands down."

Other colleges in the area that offer associate degrees, like Edinboro University, a four-year institution, said it's yet unknown how the community college could affect them.

“Much of it will depend on the community college’s tuition structure, short- and long-term enrollment targets and program offerings,” Angela Burrows, Edinboro’s vice president for marketing and communications, said in a statement. "There’s also tremendous potential for a partnership between Edinboro and a community college, which would benefit the community, as well as the two institutions."

Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education, known as PASSHE, which includes Edinboro, said its universities often seek out partnerships with other colleges.

"If we, through those kinds of partnerships, can improve the environment for student success, and in the process support each other’s missions, then that’s a healthy thing for the entire higher education industry," Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for PASSHE, said in a statement. "We all have a role to play and students to serve, and our individual places in higher ed can be impactful and concentric for the sake of any student."

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