By Matthew Rink, GoErie.com
Q: What’s going on in Erie and its request for a community college?
A: Erie has been debating the merits of a community college for at least 15 years. It's the largest city in the state without one. In 2017, Erie County Council agreed to be the financial sponsor, a requirement of the state. It plans to pay for its share with casino gaming revenue and contributions from the Erie Community Foundation in the initial years. The county has been waiting for an answer on its application for almost two and a half years. The state board again delayed a decision recently when, instead of voting on the application, it voted to hold an evidentiary hearing within the next six months.
Q: Why do Erie leaders think a college is so important?
A: Proponents see it as a solution to generational poverty and as a way to address socio-economic and educational disparities. They believe a community college is a piece of a larger economic-development puzzle. It could, they believe, help fill in-demand jobs currently occupied by an aging workforce and meet the needs of an ever-evolving economy, especially as long-established companies like G.E. Transportation (now Wabtec) continue to shed jobs.
Q: Who is opposed to it, and what’s their reasoning?
A: Some residents are adamant that county government shouldn't be in the education business. They object to their tax dollars being used for a community college and worry their tax rates will increase because of it. Others believe that ample post-secondary educational offerings already exist in Erie County by way of Gannon and Mercyhurst universities (private, four-year schools) and Edinboro and Penn State Behrend, which are part of the state system.
Q: What’s the political angle to all of this? Who’s pulling the strings?
A: State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson County), has been one of the most outspoken critics. He has repeatedly said a community college in Erie would duplicate services already provided by the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, which operates in nine counties, including Erie. Scarnati was a founder of the NPRC, which is not a community college in the eyes of the state but is state-funded. The NPRC has a distance-learning model that strives to keep costs low by leasing classroom space, instead of owning and maintaining buildings.
Q: Why should taxpayers care about Erie’s college controversy?
A: It serves as a litmus test for the future growth of the state's community college system. It's been 25 years since the state approved a new community college. When the system was established back in the 1960s, the state envisioned twice as many community colleges than the 14 it has now. And Erie isn't the only community lining up at the doors of the Department of Education. The Susquehanna Valley Community Education Project, which is about three years behind Erie in the process, wants to establish a community college for the 300,000 people in Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties who lack access to affordable post-secondary education.
Read more about Erie's battle