Community college education: underestimated and underfunded

Michelle Hadden, Centurion Staff

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What do Aaron Rodgers, George Lucas, Morgan Freeman, Jim Lehrer, and Eileen Collins all have in common?
Underneath their most notable achievements, these five prominent figures share a common thread through their humble beginnings at a community college.
Yes—Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback who led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory in 2011; George Lucas, the film director and screenwriter behind the famous Star Wars franchise; and Morgan Freeman, Oscar-winning actor—all started out in community college.
So did Jim Lehrer, former anchor and executive editor of “PBS NewsHour”; and Eileen Collins, retired NASA astronaut and the first female pilot and commander of a Space Shuttle.
And this is just to name a few.
Yet, not unlike the many film crew hands that work diligently behind-the-scenes of a Hollywood movie, community colleges are all-too-often overlooked in the rolling credits of people’s lives.
Fighting to overcome a longstanding reputation that these schools are nothing more than a marginal path towards a mediocre future, community college advocates are looking to break this stigma, gain the recognition they feel these schools deserve, and increase much-needed public funding.
“So many great people have come from community colleges. So many great minds have had much more of a humble start than a Harvard education,” said Matthew Kelly, a 21-year-old business student at BCCC who is working to help increase support for community colleges.
Kelly, along with BCCC President Stephanie Shanblatt, professors John Strauss and John Sheridan, and other fellow students, went to Harrisburg last month to lobby for increased community college funding.
“We just stressed that Community College was an important building block and is just as deserving of the same clout that bigger universities receive,” said Kelly.
The group met in State Senator Robert Tomlinson’s office, providing testimony to Tomlinson and state representatives Frank Farry and Tina Davis. They shared their stories on how community college has been a positive force in their lives, emphasizing why funding was important to each of them.
Among the students, was 29-year-old Christina Smith, a business studies major graduating from BCCC this month, who went up to Harrisburg a day earlier to be honored as part of the 2015 All-Pennsylvania Academic Team.
“Bucks County Community College pretty much saved my life,” said Smith, describing how she failed at her first attempt at college, but eventually found her second chance.
“When I was younger, I went away to school the first time to the University of California Pennsylvania,” she said.
“For numerous reasons, I didn’t do well. I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t acclimated. I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t know what was going to be required of me. And then I had so many different family responsibilities that kept getting in the way and it was an overwhelming thing,” she said.
“When I failed out of California University of Pennsylvania, I thought that was it. I was done. I had my shot, and I blew it,” said Smith.
Years later, with encouragement from her boss and the help of tuition reimbursement, Smith enrolled at BCCC, determined to make it work this time around. Exceeding her own expectations, she found herself completely engaged in the entire college experience.
“I came here and I got involved, and I started doing everything I wanted to do the first time. I was able to be a part of student government, the Lower Bucks Programming Council, the business club, the Women Inspiring and Networking club, and I’m the president of the Black and Latino Association. And I have a 3.85 GPA, as opposed to the 0.03 GPA I had when I left California University.” said Smith.
Grateful, Smith added, “It gave me my life back, it gave me a chance back. It gave me opportunity and hope that I never thought I would have again.”
As each of the students shared their stories to the state legislators, Smith felt they were well-received, but also learned that it’s an ongoing battle.
“I felt they heard what we had to say, that they were interested and cared. But they also explained that since PA is such a diverse state, everyone wants funding for very different things,” said Smith.
In the last 10 years, the highest Pennsylvania has budgeted towards its 14 community colleges was $236 million in 2008-09 under the Rendell administration. In the two years that followed, funding was sustained thanks to help from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But then in the 2011-12 Pennsylvania budget, the first of Governor Corbett’s term, state funding for community colleges was slashed by 10 percent—to $212,167,000—where it has remained ever since.
Education funding is one of the major priorities highlighted in the proposed 2015-16 Pennsylvania budget, the first under the Wolf administration, bringing some hope to the state’s community colleges. If passed, community college funding would increase by 7 percent this coming fiscal year—to $230,723,000.
“With Wolf, so far, the future looks bright for education,” said Kelly. “There’s so many programs that are on the cusp of creation, that if the funding was here, we’d be creating even brighter futures.”
Aside from state funding, community colleges rely on their sponsoring district for subsidizing a large share of the cost—one third, according to the Community College Act of 1963.
At Bucks County Community College, the operating budget for 2014-15 was just under $84 million. The County of Bucks, however, contributed only $8.47 million according to its 2015 budget.
In 10 years, the county has increased its funding of the community college by only 7.76 percent, with the last increase taking place in 2009.
“The county can do more, a lot more, to advocate,” said Kelly.
According to Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia, there are two important concepts to be considered when it comes to the county’s flat funding of the community college.
“First, the county is dependent on property taxes, as is local municipal governments and school boards. When the state started cutting its funding to school districts in the 80s, school boards had to raise property taxes. Over the past 30 years, school property taxes have risen astronomically,” said Marseglia.
“The only way to help residents afford the school property taxes, has been for municipal and county government to not increase property taxes. Even when the county has raised property taxes a small amount, it has been to cover required county services. There just has not been room to increase property taxes to the level necessary to fund BCCC at the ideal one-third share,” she added.
“Second, county commissioners and state legislators are all elected to office. If and when we raise taxes, we get the ire of the public. The public has not wanted their taxes increased,” said Marseglia.
While the county has made every effort to keep taxes down, why then, as community colleges continue to be overlooked, has the county’s correctional facility seen significant increases over the same period of time?
The county’s Department of Corrections has gone from being budgeted $27 million in 2005 to receiving $37 million in 2015—an increase of 37 percent.
“We’re funding prisons more than the colleges. Prisons are overcrowded and colleges are suffering. Why not flip that statistic, by redistributing the funds,” said Kelly.
“The answer is pretty simple: crime,” said Marseglia.

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