Delivering a Promising Future
Erie County Community College closer to reality
You might have heard the news that Erie County is negotiating a partnership with the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College to bring community college education to our county.
A partnership with Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC) will be responsive to the needs of our employers and workers while also being responsible to our taxpayers. If this partnership comes to fruition, we will have affordable, accessible education and top-of-the-line workforce training at no cost to county taxpayers.
I've heard a lot of questions and comments from people on both sides of the issue — some who insist we need a standalone Erie County community college, and some who say we don't need any community college education here at all.
This is an important issue, one that will prove pivotal to our county's economic future. That's why it is equally important that you, the citizens, understand the thinking behind this partnership and hear from me about why we are pursuing it.
Why do we need a community college?
This is one of the most common questions I hear, and one that is easiest to answer. We need community college education to meet the workforce needs of our employers and to bring family-sustaining jobs to our citizens.
Community college education isn't the kind of education you would receive at a traditional four-year institution. It might be a stepping stone to a bachelor's degree, but it also often allows for certification or other training that is essential to entering a particular industry.
That is key in today's workplaces. Research shows that in the next decade, 65 percent of jobs will require some form of post-secondary training. Local employers echo that need. They are preparing to lose up to 50 percent of their workforce to retirement in the next decade, and they need new workers, ready with skills and training, to take the place of experienced employees.
Furthermore, report after report — including the Erie Regional Chamber's recent report from the Atlanta agency Garner Economics — have indicated cities can't grow and attract businesses without community colleges.
Another advantage of a community college education is affordability. The cost is less than $200 per credit, which is considerably less expensive than traditional four-year colleges and private training institutions.
Why partner with the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College?
When Erie County was considering local sponsorship of a community college in 2017, county officials and Empower Erie, the nonprofit group that created the local community college plan, met with officials from the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (then known as the Rural Regional College) to consider potential partnership opportunities.
At the time, the two entities seemed too far apart in their missions — NPRC, which was just getting started, was not looking to own buildings as part of its model, but Erie County was convinced that a brick-and-mortar facility was essential.
Erie County Council ultimately voted in 2017 to act as a local sponsor, and Erie County submitted an application to the state to create a standalone community college. For nearly two years, the application has been under consideration by the state Board of Education.
Late in 2018, Erie County began to again communicate with NPRC, as the school continued to develop its presence in a nine-county footprint. As potential opportunities to collaborate were discussed, it became clear that there was more that united us than divided us — though we each envisioned a different delivery model for education, we share the ultimate goal of training a ready and able workforce of the future.
Furthermore, a partnership with NPRC would address a persistent concern that county taxpayers have expressed. We've heard them say they don't mind a community college — they just don't want county taxpayers to shoulder the burden of paying for it.
What might a partnership with NPRC look like?
Our goal is to have a brick-and-mortar location here in Erie County that would offer hands-on classroom education and, vitally, a world-class workforce development center where students can learn and train. Students from Erie County would have a campus for their community college education, and NPRC students from around the region could also take advantage of the skills center.
The academic and technical courses and programs that will be offered will be in line with the curriculum developed by Empower Erie and will be nimble and responsive to the changing needs of our employers.
And with all of this, there will be no local match — that is, no county funding share, like there would be in a traditional community college. The NPRC has a different funding model than the state's community colleges, which require local funds. So a partnership with NPRC means Erie County taxpayers would not be shouldering the burden of funding a community college.
Details of the collaboration are still being worked out, but Erie County and NPRC are building a framework that will allow us to move ahead.
If this agreement comes to fruition, community college education will finally come to Erie County. It might not be exactly what we envisioned, but it will achieve the goal we all share. We will have a brick-and-mortar facility that will provide certificates, associate degrees, and workforce training for Erie County residents.
Community college education in Erie County has been a long time coming. Credit goes back to former County Executive Barry Grossman, who advocated for a community college a decade ago; to Empower Erie and Erie County Council, who picked up that mantle and revitalized the effort two years ago; and to business leaders and private funders who have rallied around the cause. Because of all of those efforts, county government is finding a path forward.
After all the twists and turns, stops and starts, it appears that community college education and training is within our grasp. A partnership between Erie County and NPRC will finally deliver on the promise local leaders have been working to fulfill for more than a decade — and we will finally deliver a promising future for our citizens.
Kathy Dahlkemper is Erie County Executive. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.