RIDGWAY – Educational needs of an underserved populace in rural Pennsylvania may finally be addressed by legislators this year.
House Bill 1701, now in the House Education committee, aims to create a rural community college pilot program serving an 11-county region of northwest and north central Pennsylvania.
Its sister legislation, Senate Bill 1000, passed with flying colors, 42-4.
"It’s been an issue and a concern for our region in the context of higher education, workforce, and job development training for a long time," said Eric Bridges, executive director at the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission.
The seeds were planted quite some time ago as Senator Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) reached out to educators about a national problem which slowly became a statewide issue, and finally, a regional hurdle.
"This goes back to early 2000 when [Scarnati] came to me and discussed a national problem, a lack of people with ‘middle skills,’ so to speak, and associate degrees," said Dr. Richard McDowell, chairman of the Education Consortium of the Upper Allegheny [ECUA], an alliance formed to tackle the issue of a lack of associate degree opportunities in rural Pennsylvania. "They were looking at it as a statewide problem and he came to me while I was still president at Pitt-Bradford, and looked at it as a regional problem, too. I put together a study group and took a look at the needs of the region, and it comes down to three major issues, one being accessibility as there is no community college north of Interstate 80."
The ECUA's vision has long been to address the educational needs of three identified populations that have been underserved and virtually forgotten for the past 50 years. The groups include high school students who graduate without the academic or financial background to attend a four-year institution; students who enter four-year institutions but leave, for a wide range of reasons, before completing their degrees and return home with no direction for the future; and adult learners who after raising their families want to enter the workforce, those individuals who have lost their jobs, been displaced, or simply want to advance in their present line of work or seek better employment opportunities.
"Community colleges are supposed to provide low costs and open admission, and they can only offer associate degrees, the highest that they can provide, and they provide the types of programs that are needed to educate students for jobs in this area," McDowell said. "Recommendations from the study included the creation of a consortium to put this thing together and implement low-cost associate degree programs in this area."
The bulk of the residents in the Commonwealth, especially south of Interstate 80, have enjoyed these opportunities since the mid-1960s.
The 11-county region boasts a median income that is reportedly 20 percent lower than the state average; with rising costs at four-year institutions, McDowell believes a rural regional community college makes sense.
"We’re trying to bring low-cost education into the area," he said.
State Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren) said the legislation's aim is to provide students of rural Pennsylvania with the same educational opportunities as students in other parts of the Commonwealth. She cited the fact that high school graduates need options and "our workers need resources to grow their skill set."
The Community College Act was enacted in 1963 and led to the creation of 14 community colleges throughout the state, however, the original intent was to have as many as 28.
"The Board of Education envisioned 28 institutions serving the Commonwealth," said state Rep. Martin Causer (R-Cameron/McKean/Potter). "The framework for creating the colleges simply doesn't work for rural areas, so only half of them ever came to be. 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."
To combat this, the ECUA started by partnering with Butler County Community College for three semesters as it "got us off the ground," according to Duane Vicini, ECUA president.
"We were looking at cost factors and accessibility issues as well," he said. "With new technological abilities in today’s day and age, students can stay right in their area and receive an associate degree. When we started we had four locations and a half dozen students, now we have eight locations and 30 to 35 students, and we should be up to 12 locations after the fall.
"We looked at all the institutions in the area and got seven very good proposals, and the board went back to the statement of affordability and accessibility, and when I opened Gannon’s proposal I couldn’t believe it."
Students can earn an associate degree, either in arts in interdisciplinary studies (liberal arts), or business administration for as little as $12,000. The part-time rate is $175 (up to $180 in the fall) with a discounted rate for dual enrollment high school students of $33 per credit.
"Obviously they were our choice moving forward and I can’t say enough good things about them," Vicini said. "We’ve been working with them for two years and will be presenting our first four associate degrees after the summer."
The associate degree programs are offered through a combination of face-to-face instruction and interactive television at eight primary sites including Corry, Coudersport, Emporium, Kane, Smethport, St. Marys, Tidioute and Warren.
The ECUA is also looking for additional locations interested in serving as interactive TV sites. The goal is to have approximately 25 percent of each program offered live at each of the primary sites, and to have ITV locations available to reduce travel time for participants throughout the ECUA service region.
"We want to see everyone have access to an associate degree program within 30 minutes from their residence throughout the 11-county region," McDowell said.
Despite the successes enjoyed in partnership between ECUA and Gannon, Vicini said the board of trustees "never lost focus of that ultimate dream and that was creating a rural regional community college."
"We’re hoping to see an announcement by June that will make this a reality, and there would be a six-year implementation plan which we’ve crafted, and for the first two years we’ll continue on with Gannon," Vicini said. "There would then be a transition phase between Gannon into our program as a regional community college. It was never our goal to have a brick and mortar center, and instead wanted to remain an outreach that could get into every small community, and that won’t change.
"Nonetheless, Middle States [Association of Colleges and Schools] requires at least one center for administration and you must have some classes offered there, so that is something that will be going forward. I think there’s a building out there that will do just fine so we don’t have to waste capital on new construction, and there have been no decisions made on that because we’re not even to that point yet."
Even with dwindling population figures, McDowell and Vicini said the necessity of a rural regional community college is still strong.
"What we haven’t scratched the surface of is that there are an awful lot of people who don’t want a full post-secondary education because one, they can’t afford the full four-year program at Bradford or Dubois for Penn State, or wherever, or they’re afraid to go to a university," Vicini said. "There is a population out there that is not being touched because they have no access to this. Our belief is that we’ll raise the ocean, we’ll get more people coming into post-secondary education. We think the population is there for this."
Deborah Pontzer, aide to U.S. Representative Glenn "GT" Thompson (PA-5), mirrored Vicini's views, and indicated that dismal four-year college figures also are cause for grave concern.
"Right now around 70 percent of our students are going to college but only 30 percent are graduating," she said. "That leaves some with lots of school loan debt, no one wants them, they simply can’t do it or afford it."
With 81 percent of the student populace providing information for a recent statewide study, the average debt for student loans in Pennsylvania tops out at roughly $31,675, third in the nation; the proportion of the student population with loan debt tops 70 percent, fourth in the nation.
"The open admission aspect to a rural regional community college is absolutely critical because the students that didn’t make it in a four-year program are walking around with debt and college transcripts that are abysmal," Pontzer said. "Here is an opportunity for an open admissions institution and we know the best way to build the economy is with good jobs."
In Senate Bill 100 introduced last June, much of the bipartisan measure is based on recommendations by a Legislative Budget and Finance Committee [LBFC] study completed in December 2011.
The investigative report provided framework for SB 1000, but also showed that 25 of the 26 rural counties in Pennsylvania had no community college programs and by 2018, most jobs will require post-secondary education training.
"Providing rural communities with access to affordable higher education is critical to providing new career opportunities for students and improving the economy," Scarnati said. "We want to help provide cost effective educational opportunities to students so that they have the necessary skills to meet the demand for new jobs."
Dr. Livingston Alexander, who 11 years ago today was named the third president of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, said part-time student enrollment is at its lowest level at his institution, due at least in part to issues with affordability and accessibility.
"We found that those who really couldn’t enroll full-time, we had a large number at first, but the number started to decline over time," he said. "Now we’re at the lowest level in terms of part-time students that we’ve ever had. Our full-time population, however, has increased dramatically with students coming in throughout the commonwealth, country and the world really.
"I’m still convinced there is a population out there of worthy adult students who are looking for options, and this population has to be served."
While having dinner recently in St. Marys, Vicini was seated next to a longtime instructor "from one of the small schools in the area" when the two struck up a conversation.
"She told me that one of the graduates in her community that she taught was coming to earn an associate degree, and she had tears in her eyes, and told me ‘I taught 41 years and in my wildest dreams I never thought someone could stay right in their community, never leave their home community, and earn an associate degree, and better themselves,'" he said. "With a regional community college, the possibilities are endless."