Business Life: Training the Next Generation of WorkersAug 31, 2021 05:00PM ● By Jennifer Pencek
In 2005, the Central Pennsylvania Workforce Development Board conducted surveys in the region to determine the best approach to meet employment needs with skilled workers. The answer? Establish a regional community college. More than 15 years later, that prospect is nearing reality.
Two years after the Central Pennsylvania Workforce Development Board formulated the idea to establish a regional community college, Lenaire Ahlum of Danville was listening to a news report about a student living in Sunbury and driving approximately 90 minutes each way to attend community college in Nanticoke to earn an associate’s degree.
“I had just finished my master’s [degree] and thought, that is such a long distance for a student to travel to earn an associate’s degree,” said Ahlum, founder and executive director of the Susquehanna Valley Community Education Project. “I contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Education and forged a relationship with the higher education associate there. At that point I said, what would it take for us to have our own community college, and I was given the guidelines.”
What it takes
The requirements are vast, including conducting a background study, higher education needs assessment, audit of progress and economic impact study; applying as a 501c3 to establish the project; finding university and local sponsorship; and then formally applying to the state.
The background study and 501c3 application were completed in 2007 and the determination letter was received in 2008. The years since have been spent working to complete the other requirements. In May 2021, Marywood University was announced as the university sponsor. Once the community college is established Marywood will help guide project leaders in following all requirements associated with operating an accredited university.
“This has been a long and arduous journey,” Ahlum said. “Keep your eye on the prize—that’s been the advice all along.”
The whys and wherefores
Joining Ahlum on the voyage to make the dream of a regional community college come true is Meghan Beck, board president, and a team of regional representatives, all of whom believe in the positive impact of a community college on the region. Beck, a Bucknell University graduate who lives in Sunbury, says the reasons why are endless.
“Hiring qualified staff is a huge challenge in our area,” she said. “We are a rural community and have less people to draw from, which hampers your economic development and businesses being launched or expanded. Without a community college to be that connector to provide a pathway for the citizenry to be retrained into career types, we just don’t have that pathway right now and that’s unfortunate.”
She added the project should be seen as a legacy project, something the entire region can benefit from and be proud to have within its reach.
“In 20 years this will change so many lives, people will wonder how did we live without this,” Beck said. “It’s something to be proud of and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
What is looks like
Plans include following a distribution model covering Snyder, Union, Northumberland and Montour counties, with a centrally located main campus and classroom space allocated in partnership with existing trade schools; the plan is to look to employers to provide instruction for specific skillsets, Beck said. The goal is to have sponsorships in place by late 2021 and the application to the state by 2022.
“We will go through some iterations with the state and refinements on recommendations, but if all goes well we can get approved late 2022 or early 2023, with classes to start in 2023,” Ahlum said. “COVID has slowed things down significantly so we could be a year beyond that, in fall 2024.”
Erie Community College was approved by the state in June 2020 and both Ahlum and Beck made statements during the approval hearings. Ahlum said her testimony focused on the high proportion of Pennsylvania residents, as compared to the rest of the country, enrolled in community college—13 million residents in 14 community colleges.
Why is makes sense
Some of the key statistics Ahlum and Beck cited in support of a regional community college include:
There are at least 11,000 job openings in Central Pennsylvania with a dedicated regional community college able to meet the demand;
85 percent of part-time community college students are working in their communities and raising families;
94 percent of all community college students remain in Pennsylvania after graduation; and
tuition for the new community college is about $5,500 per year for a full-time student, the cost of which is met by a Pell Grant (for which most Susquehanna Valley residents qualify).
Boosting local economies
Community colleges can also be key drivers of regional economic growth and tax revenue, keeping wealth circulating in the local economy.
“If we give opportunity, people will stay here and establish their careers here,” Beck said. “We want all our communities to feel engaged and a part of the community college.”
Tea Jay Aikey, president and CEO of the Central Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce, agrees. The Chamber of Commerce endorses the project.
“It would fill a skills gap in our region, connecting underemployed workers to jobs with livable wages and to employers who are struggling with finding qualified employees for a growing workforce gap in the trades, certifications and two-year degrees,” Aikey said. “We wish this project great success and are confident in the research done by Dr. Ahlum and her team.”
Learn more about the Susquehanna Valley Community Education Project by visiting newcommunitycollege.org.
Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer based in State College and director of the Office for the Prevention of Interpersonal Violence at Juniata College.