(Today’s column is about a local subject, but if you care about where you live anywhere in PA, please bear with me. This is an insight in why your economy may be stronger – or weaker – than a neighboring county.)
Community colleges in PA are able to charge very low tuition in the following manner. Costs are divided three ways – the state pays one third, the student pays another and the final third is borne by a local primary sponsor. This local primary can only be the county government or one or more school districts.
A prime-sponsored community college most often offers the first two years although a few award bachelor’s degrees. The advantages are obvious. Students entered the work force with less debt. Studies also show these students are likely to remain in the area and the higher-educated local workforce attracts business investment. Existing businesses keep their workers’ skills up-to-date at a very modest cost for courses.
Mercer County residents have access to a community college education which is not the least expensive because there is no local prime sponsor. As a result, Mercer residents pay almost $200 per credit hour (including fees) while residents of Butler pay less than $100 for the same education.
So-called PA institutes of higher education are more expensive than similar schools in other states because, in part, of the legislature’s refusal to provide more support. Including fees, costs per credit hour this fall at area PA-related schools are; Penn State-Shenango, over $400, and Slippery Rock, almost $400.
Private schools are even higher – Grove City, about $410; Thiel, almost $700; Westminster, about $850, and Allegheny, over $1,000.
Actually, for other low-cost educations look west to Ohio. Recently both Youngstown State University (about $225) and Kent State University (under $300) reduced tuition for residents of PA border counties.
The least expensive higher education available to Mercer County residents is a well-kept secret. The new Eastern Gateway Community College, uses existing buildings in Mahoning and Trumbell counties, and charges $123 per credit hour.
A community college is not the sole path to economic wellness, but low-cost/higher education obviously contributes. Unemployment is lower in Butler than Mercer and, without doubt, the new census figures will show the average resident in Butler has a higher level of formal education and more income.
Start-up of community colleges were debated in the early 1970s by county boards of commissioners. Butler Commissioners elected to go forward and Mercer’s did not. Not surprising, if there has ever been a spark of interest in Mercer County local school districts, it is a closely guarded secret.
The writer does not advocate a “Mercer County Community College,” but rather a co-primary sponsorship with Butler. The newly renovated Mercer County Career Center and other existing buildings could be used in off-peak hours. A reasonable estimate is that upwards of 1,000 full-time local residents could be educated for about a mill of real estate taxes.
Don’t hold your breath. The ongoing lack of business and political leadership in Mercer County makes it unlikely anyone will propose a real look.
Some attitudes change.
Lance Masters, the 17th president of Thiel College, was opposed to a local community college, wrongly believing this competition would do damage to his higher-priced private school. Bob Olson, the 18th president, saw value in the increase number of potential Thiel students who could more likely matriculate there for their junior and senior years. Until this project acquires a pulse, there is little point in finding out what the 19th and newest Thiel president, Troy VanAken thinks.
California has 119 community colleges and New York, Texas and Florida have nearly 100 each. Pennsylvania has 15, all but one, south of Interstate 80. There are probably a dozen other counties that participate as joint primary sponsors.
The 15 community college presidents in PA are a formidable political power and would oppose expansion. They know a stingy state legislature would resist enlarging the pie.
Erie County wants to become the 16th, again. That county stuck PA taxpayers for $15 million in a bankruptcy of a technical institute that crashed a decade ago. A new scheme of how Erie County leaders intend to stick PA taxpayers again for their local share will be detailed in a future column