The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 9, 2014

Controversy arises over college plan

HARRISBURG — A community college planned in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania would open the doors of higher education to students in an 11-county area, but it’s also stirring controversy about who pays the bills.

Plans for Pennsylvania’s 15th community college would skirt existing cost-sharing rules that require school districts, cities or counties to help cover tuition costs for community college students. For the new college, the state would cover the local government share, leaving students to pay about one-third. Under legislation proposed in the House, the tuition would amount to an average of the in-county rate paid at the other 14 community colleges.

That irks leaders of existing community colleges, who’ve already started branching into underserved areas of the state. Their colleges carry two tuition schedules – one for students who live in the county where a college is based, and another for everyone else.

Walter Asonevich, president of Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, based in Cambria County, wrote to lawmakers arguing that his college’s model of adding satellite campuses is a more efficient alternative to opening a new one.

“Our small academic centers would work better,” Asonevich said.

Penn Highlands, he noted, is exploring changes to its fee schedule to offset the inequity in what it charges in tuition.

Asonevich said he doubts that a new regional community college can sustain itself. That worries leaders of existing community colleges, he said, who fear money for the new school will come at their expense.

But Duane Vicini, president of the Educational Consortium of the Upper Allegheny, which is advocating for the new college, said the state through the years has collected millions of dollars in taxes from the region that have helped pay for other community colleges.

“It’s our turn,” Vicini said.

The state’s community colleges enroll about 150,000 full- and part-time students, according to the state Department of Education.

Current law handcuffs community colleges by capping the tuition they can charge residents of the counties where they are based. The colleges make up that money by charging nonresident students more – and tacking on fees that all students pay.

Penn Highlands, based in Richland Township, charges students who live in neighboring counties 58 percent more in tuition and basic fees than those from Cambria County – $3,533 per semester compared with $2,230. Students from beyond the region pay even more.

Penn Highlands has branch campuses in Huntingdon, Ebensburg and Somerset. It opened another in Altoona last August.

At Butler County Community College, students in neighboring counties pay 79 percent more than residents of Butler County – $3,162 in tuition and fees for a 12-credit semester compared with $1,767. The college has branches in New Castle, Lawrence County, and Hermitage, Mercer County.

It just opened a satellite in Brockway, 82 miles from its main campus, which is being marketed to students in Jefferson, Elk, Clearfield and Clarion counties. All are part of the region targeted by the 15th community college initiative. That satellite branch in Brockway would benefit from any reform of the tuition formula for community colleges.

Nicholas Neupauer, president of Butler County Community College, said nonsponsored students represent one-third of his college’s enrollment but half of its tuition revenue.

College officials have stopped trying to solicit county support for areas where they have branches, Neupauer said. Instead they look at it as “taxing the user” by charging those students more in tuition than they do their Butler County peers, he said.

“It’s still the most affordable game in town,” Neupauer said.

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, said the state ought to examine ways to narrow the tuition discrepancies.

Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, whose district covers much of the area that would benefit from the new college, agrees that tuition inequity should be studied, said spokesman Greg Mahon.

But Scarnati doesn’t want that to derail the new college effort, said Mahon.

Sen. Patricia Vance, R-Cumberland County, has written a bill to tackle the tuition problem, Mahon noted, though it is so finely tailored that it would only benefit students at Harrisburg Area Community College, in her district.

It is still unclear where a 15th community college campus would be based, said Vicini.

Organizers wondered if a campus was necessary at all, but colleges must have a physical presence somewhere to be accredited.

Vicini said the Education Consortium of the Upper Allegheny now offers classes through a partnership with Gannon University in Erie. The arrangement is intended to be temporary, until the regional community college is established.

Once that happens, the new college will lean heavily on technology to make classes accessible to students across a large, sparsely populated area, he said.

That’s an approach already embraced by other community colleges.

On Thursday morning, two students in a classroom at Penn Highlands’ Huntingdon satellite were participating by teleconference in a criminal justice class taught by a professor at the college’s main campus in Cambria County.

The Huntingdon “campus” consists of half a building in an office park outside the borough. It has three classrooms, labs and a lobby where students socialize and use computers.

Most importantly, students said, the location offers flexible class schedules, accessibility and affordability.

At the private Juniata College, also in Huntingdon, tuition runs $35,000 a year. Students otherwise interested in college must drive 35 to 40 miles to the nearest campuses.

“I wouldn’t be able to do that,” said Penn Highlands student Brian Stromer, who is taking accounting classes during the day and working the third shift at night.

Angie Nicklow said small classes and the community of a few dozen other students at the Huntingdon branch make the experience more comfortable for students from small towns. Nicklow said she passed on the chance to go to college when she was younger because she was intimidated by the prospect of attending classes on a large campus.

The students said they would be happy to pay the same tuition as their peers in Cambria County, but they know there aren’t more affordable options than what they pay.

Nicklow has a son in a private college, she said, but feels more confident in the value of her education.

“I feel like I’m getting a better deal,” she said.

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