Empower Erie News & Updates

Community college is vital investment in Erie County’s future: Tom Hagen

Posted on November 5th, 2017 at 10:31 AM
  

Posted November 5th, 2017 on the goerie.com website.

The time is now to put Erie County first.

For decades, Erie County taxpayers have helped support Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges through our state tax dollars. We’ve shared in the cost. Now, we have the opportunity to also share in the many benefits, by establishing a community college we can call our own.

I’ve joined many other business, civic and nonprofit leaders in strongly supporting the Erie County community college. And I was happy to see two of the top three employers in the county — UPMC Hamot and Erie Insurance — recently throw their support behind the community college plan at the state Board of Education’s public hearing.

A community college for Erie County is about much more than simply leveling the playing field. It represents a vital and necessary investment in our shared future at a critical time in our region’s history. Everywhere one travels in this country, there are long-established community colleges, and these are the very communities that Erie County competes with to attract companies and new jobs.

Erie County is at a crossroads. We are facing the fallout from the fast-changing global economy, persistent poverty, and a host of related challenges. Yet, at the same time, what the Erie Times-News recently described as a series of “transformational initiatives” hold the potential to revitalize our local economy in dramatic and lasting ways.

Erie Insurance is committed to playing its part. The company has invested millions of dollars in expanding its operations and improving its neighborhood — and continues to devote time, money and resources to support the broader Erie community. It’s heartening to see similar multimillion-dollar investments from the businesses and hospitals, downtown and bayfront development, as well as energized focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.

However, to best leverage these opportunities requires a strong economic foundation that will position Erie County to take full advantage of private-sector investments. A stand-alone community college is an essential pillar in that foundation, filling a pressing need that benefits students of all ages and backgrounds, as well as employers across a range of industries.

While our existing colleges play a crucial role, a community college fills a different — and equally important — niche. Edinboro University of Pennsylvania President H. Fred Walker acknowledged this point at the recent public hearing. Walker spoke in favor of establishing a community college, stating Edinboro University will no longer offer associate degree programs in a community college-style format, as those offerings don’t align with the university’s core mission as a four-year institution.

Meanwhile, many manufacturers in our community are sounding the alarm about a growing shortage of skilled labor as many employees in the current workforce approach retirement. The manufacturers emphasize that only a stand-alone community college can scale to meet their anticipated needs. With projected yearly tuition for full-time students at $2,400, the Erie County community college would offer the right mix of affordability and accessibility for students — as well as the targeted curriculum and classroom training applications that align with the evolving needs of local employers.

Erie’s business and labor leaders understand the once-in-a-generation opportunity the community college represents, which is why they have joined forces in urging the state Board of Education to approve the college plan.

Besides Erie Insurance and UPMC Hamot, other outspoken supporters of the community college include the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, the Erie Regional Manufacturing Partnership and a host of prominent unions, such as the UE Local 506 union at GE Transportation.

It’s not often that all of these groups stand together — but they are united by a shared vision for a community college that can make our region more competitive, battle brain drain, and provide an answer to chronic unemployment and poverty.

When the Erie School District found itself on the brink of insolvency last year, our community came together in unprecedented ways to reach viable solutions.

I can’t think of a better way to build on that progress than to create an Erie County community college that can offer an affordable and accessible stepping stone for many students, both in the city and throughout our county.

The time is now to put Erie on equal footing with the rest of the state and nation. The time is now for the Erie County community college.

Tom Hagen is the chairman of Erie Insurance, chairman of Custom Engineering, and former Pennsylvania secretary of commerce in the Ridge administration.


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