The Community's College

Categories:  Features    Community
Wednesday, May 28th, 2014 at 8:31 AM

Often perceived as the “unsung heroes” of America’s educational system, community colleges play a critical role in educational development. They serve almost half of the undergraduate students in the United States, provide open access to postsecondary education, help prepare students for transfer to four-year institutions, offer workforce development and skills training, and present noncredit programs such as English as a Second Language or community enrichment programs alongside a variety of cultural activities.

According to the PA Commission of Community Colleges, Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges provide high-quality, higher education and workforce training to approximately 500,000 individuals from around the Commonwealth each year. Of those individuals, 230,000 are undergraduate students. That’s roughly one out of every five undergraduate students in Pa. – as there are roughly 1.15 million undergraduate students studying in the Keystone state.

Yet our region is one of the most un-served areas statewide. That is, until now.

But over the last several years, the idea of a community college has been a hotbed topic for many throughout the Erie community. Although a community college system was established in Pennsylvania back in 1960, it wasn’t until around 2008 that the subject started to see any traction in the Erie area. At the time, the county prepared a feasibility study for the state. The local initiative, while extensively researched, showcased a number of compelling reasons for movement on the project, but it stalled mainly due to its critics.

One of the biggest arguments at the time the community college issue was up for debate was that Erie already boasted four major higher educational institutions and therefore this initiative was not actually necessary. What we may not ever fully grasp however, is that even with four universities within a stone’s throw, very few individuals in the community are receiving a post-secondary education.

In fact, as of last year, of the 100,000-plus population in the Erie City alone, while 86 percent of students have high school diplomas, only 21 percent boast bachelor’s degrees, and 8 percent hold graduate or professional degrees. In addition to educational averages, it isn’t difficult to recognize, given the departure of much of GE, alongside our current trends in industry, that there are a number of individuals who still need the skills required to meet the needs of our current labor market – for now and in the future.

So, while we have several great outlets providing quality education, many weren't taking advantage of it. Why?

Well, key roadblocks to accessing these outlets – time, money, flexibility, and on-the-job training – weren’t being addressed. One may argue that all the colleges and universities locally deal with these key issues on some level, and that is true; however, that’s simply not the name of their game and none can afford to offer these things to the extent that is necessary for many individuals – something a true community college will do.

But now, Edinboro University is helping to pave the way for an opportunity that may have never come to fruition otherwise – with their development of the Porreco College of Edinboro University, better known with its new moniker: “The Community’s College.”

Of the many Edinboro University administration members involved in this project – President Dr. Julie Wollman, Vice President for University Advancement, Tina Mengine, and the College of Science & Health Professions Dean, Dr. Nathan Ritchey are on the forefront of the university’s new development for the use of an already established and functional satellite of their institution. They all mirrored the same sentiments of the history of the project, as well as the great potential for the future, and they are ready to see the Erie community have its community college.

“When President Wollman started about 18 months ago, one of the first things we did was initiate a strategic plan for the community,” Mengine explains. “We had been through multiple presidents over a very short period of time, so we knew we needed to set a roadmap for the future. As part of that plan, we needed to address the Porreco Center, as we knew we needed to do more with that campus and the community so we decided to try to look at filling the void of the community college.”

Wollman adds, “But if that hadn’t been endorsed during the planning process and recognized as a valuable initiative with all of the constituents with the university, I don’t think we would have gone ahead with it.”

It wasn’t until seven months ago, however, that the bulk of the planning process started.

“We hired a new dean, Dr. Nathan Ritchey – from Youngstown State [University]. He just happened to have experience in this arena as he worked on the community college plan there,” Mengine adds. “So, we had this wonderful benefit of his research in Youngstown – especially as the town is similar in terms of market. With him on board, it just really all fell into place.”

Fast-forward seven months later and the group worked out everything in terms of programming and finances. The concept of the Community’s College is that, unlike before, it will now be a fully self-sustaining campus.

“We are going to have major upgrades to the property – the programming will all be right on that campus,” according to Mengine. “The goal is to create an associate degree or certificate program that a student can complete in its entirety at Porreco, without ever having to go out to the University. And then when the student is finished, they can go directly into the workforce, or go apply to any four year college and transfer those credits.”

The 26-acre facility is actually already equipped with state-of-the-art classrooms – but those upgrades will include exterior enhancements, a 90-seat lecture hall, a science lab/agricultural incubator, a campus bookstore, and a café.

The programming is especially important to this project. Currently, there are four associate degrees, alongside a certificate program offered at the Porreco College. In addition, students can take courses to help contribute to requirements necessary to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. And they are continuing to expand upon their programming, creating specialized degrees by working with individual businesses, education and non-profit communities to help create a variety of more targeted programs.

“Currently, our campus has 350 students that take advantage of the programming at the Porreco facility,” says Megine. “And we currently have about 40 students from GE right now that are in the GE apprentice program – because all their apprentices need to have associate degrees.” The group has also started meeting with local businesses.

“In addition, earlier this week we met with Better Baked Foods to talk about a food safety program. Our goal is to work with individual businesses to help tailor these programs and education offerings.”

The curriculum will be shaped by the local labor market. They will coordinate with area employers and this will help ensure the programs will keep pace with evolving workforce opportunities.

By fall 2014, the Porreco College will offer coursework consisting of at least one certificate, and a minimum of four Associate Degrees.

One of their major commitments is also reducing poverty. Currently the poverty rate in Erie County is 15.8 percent - and for those with high school degree it is 13 percent. Statistics show that the rate continues to drop with those that go on to receive an associate’s degree and/or a bachelor’s degree.

Ritchey, in addition to the key expertise he brought to this project, has also been out in the community working with several local nonprofits to help address educational attainment.

“We currently have a workforce readiness grant and our goal is to provide displaced workers with some basic skills to enter into the workforce,” he explains.

Edinboro University works closely with nonprofits, such as the Erie City Mission, the Multicultural Community Resource Center, and the Hero Organization. “We go over career choices and job readiness and help provide basic skills such as how to search and interview for a job,” he adds.

And they are seeing results. “In the group we worked with at the City Mission, some of those students now have jobs and at least one has signed up to come to college. We are doing the same thing with Hero, Inc.”

Hero is a nonprofit organization dedicated to education for the consumer and the job seeker in the industry of healthcare. “With Hero, we have 28 students. At the end of the five-week program many of those students will land directly in the workforce. And we also have a wonderful budding relationship with the Multicultural Resource Center,” Ritchey says. “I’m so impressed with them and relish the thought that we can do some great work there. The refugee population is significant and providing the means for entrance into college at low prices is a game changer for them.”

The tuition is comparable to Pennsylvania’s other 14 community colleges, and is actually lower in cost than the initial community college study had ball-parked. Mengine explains, “We are offering tuition at true community college rates. When the initial community college study was done, the average cost per student was going to be $2500. We’re actually below that number offering a full-time cost of just over $2300 a semester for a full-time student.”

So, how are they doing that?

“Any Erie County resident will qualify for what we call the Porreco Promise, which is a scholarship we’re offering to every student. Add in financial aid and many individuals will have access to education for virtually no cost to them.”

The Porreco Promise is an endowment funded through private donations and will provide grants of $3k per student per year for any Erie County resident attending full-time and seeking a degree.

And this will all be created without public assistance – meaning no added taxes to the local community. Some individuals in the public have stated that the Porreco College isn’t a true community college, and Wollman explains – that in a way – it isn’t.

“A community college is funded by the local community – funded by taxes, this is not,” she says. “This is going to be funded privately. It’s an innovative approach – without added taxes to the local community.”

Unlike a typical community college, the Porreco College won’t be another burden on the backs of local taxpayers. But like a typical community college, the community will be present in the forefront of its identity.

“We’re trying to break down every single barrier in order to offer anyone educational opportunities. In addition to the tuition, we’re on a bus line. Every student gets free bus service,” Mengine explains. “We will open the grounds up to the community. We’re going to redo the orchards, put in a walking path and community garden, something that is both educational and recreational. We are engaging local industry. The only real difference is that it’s funded privately. We believe we have answered every question that says we are not one.”

Wollman adds that, “The important thing is that we can improve degree attainment. This is a really hopeful initiative. We have a bright vision and believe we can be successful as a city and a region, and I think it’s important for our local businesses and industry to work with us. Our focus is looking to the future – and moving forward with a positive outlook on what we can do to change the community.”

Although it’s not the traditional community college dreamt up six years ago for our region, the Community’s College still creates that opportunity for many individuals to pursue an education they couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. As a result, Erie County truly has an opportunity to vastly improve our economic development in hopes of attracting future employers through these emerging workforces. This initiative will be affordable to every citizen – high school graduates, workers who need additional skill sets and dislocated workers – nobody will be denied the opportunity of education. It also has the potential to benefit other local colleges and universities and  some students will be more likely to pursue advanced degrees. And all this comes without incurring new debt.

Overall, this truly is a win-win for our community.

Rebecca Styn can be contacted at rStyn@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @rStyn. 

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