Community colleges serve a special niche - LancasterOnline: Letters To The Editor

Community colleges serve a special niche

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Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 12:02 am | Updated: 7:12 pm, Thu Sep 12, 2013.

Now is not the time to cut state funding to community colleges.

Michelle Ressler-Teter held four minimum-wage jobs, but struggled to pay bills and buy food. Standing in line at a toy store to give her daughter a meager Christmas, Ressler-Teter realized a change was needed if her daughter was to be afforded better opportunities.

"I knew I needed a college education, and HACC offered that opportunity. In addition to financial assistance, the faculty and staff provided the emotional and intellectual support that has fostered my growth and success." Ressler-Teter earned two associate degrees from HACC and a bachelor's degree in art history at Mansfield University. She is a specialist in enrollment services at HACC's Lancaster Campus.

Matt Birch came home to Dauphin County after eight years in the Marine Corps - including deployment to Iraq. He heard about HACC's environmental technician course, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, to train workers to reclaim brownfields. "I went from being broke and not having a clue about what to do with my life to making a good living, buying a new truck and now getting ready to buy a house and get married. A lot has changed in my life and it all started with that class."

We all know Michelle and Matt: They are our families, our neighbors, the men and women who enter the region's workforce to fill needed jobs that provide family-sustaining wages. They represent the nearly 23,000 current students, 50,000 workforce training students and more than 50,000 alumni who found better lives at HACC.

Community colleges serve a niche in higher education and workforce training that no other institutions serve. For many, there simply is no other option. At a time when one in five community college students in Pennsylvania live in poverty, having affordable access to higher education and workforce training has never been more critical.

Community colleges have experienced unprecedented growth over the last several years. At HACC, enrollments have seen double-digit growth. In 2000, our enrollment for credit courses was 10,574; a decade later, it had more than doubled to 23,210. HACC has addressed the enrollment explosion while minimizing the impact on our students and by maintaining the lowest possible tuition levels in the face of state funding cuts. These cuts combined with state budget reductions in other programs such as job training, adult and family literacy and others designed to help some of our most disadvantaged students place increasing pressure on how we serve our students.

Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed 2012-13 budget includes a 3.8 percent reduction in the community colleges' operating budget line item. This comes on the heels of the 10 percent cut this current fiscal year. On a per-student basis, the proposed funding is less than 1995-96 levels - while Pennsylvania's community colleges have grown by nearly 65,000 students since that time.

In his Feb. 7 budget address, Corbett proposed a new program to provide additional assistance to students in energy, agriculture, and building construction programs. Workforce training is a key area in which community colleges partner with the state and the private sector but the funding levels proposed by the governor impact our ability to maintain a level of responsiveness required by the region's employers.

Pennsylvania is on the verge of an economic recovery, and community colleges are a key element in getting people trained and back to work in industries that are ready to hire. We ask Pennsylvania's decision-makers to recognize that continued investment in community colleges is more vital than ever as we strive to strengthen our workforce of today to provide a strong and vibrant future.

John J. "Ski" Sygielski, Ed.D., is president of HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College.

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