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Pa.'s few community colleges mean higher prices for some students

Asa Walker and his friend both attend Delaware County Community College, but Walker's tuition is about twice as high as his friend's, a fact he became aware of when they were comparing bills.

Asa Walker and his friend both attend Delaware County Community College, but Walker's tuition is about twice as high as his friend's, a fact he became aware of when they were comparing bills.

The reason?

Walker lives in Chester County and his friend in Delaware County, where most of the local school districts are paying sponsors of the college.

State law requires that students from non-sponsoring school districts or counties pay more than those from sponsoring entities at all 14 community colleges in Pennsylvania.

"It stinks, but I mean, I get it," said Chester County resident Kristen Kain, 20, an education major, who was on her way to class last week.

The pricing structure makes community college less affordable for many Pennsylvanians, according to a recent report by Research for Action, a Philadelphia think tank.

Pennsylvania has the fewest community colleges per capita of any state in the country, the report's authors found. While the state's 1971 master plan for higher education called for creation of 28 community colleges, only half materialized, and many of them are concentrated in the larger metropolitan areas, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Reading.

New Jersey, by comparison, has 19 community colleges with 63 locations that serve every county in the state. Every student has the option of attending and paying an in-county program rate, said Jacob Farbman, director of communications for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

"We like to say there's a community college within 20 minutes of every resident in the state of New Jersey," he said.

In Pennsylvania, community colleges have expanded since they got their start in 1964 with 12 branch locations and 87 instructional sites in 44 of the state's 67 counties, serving some areas without a community college. But students from non-sponsored districts or counties must pay the higher price.

Average annual tuition and fees for sponsored students at the state's community colleges was $4,132 in 2016-17, compared to $7,371 for non-sponsored students, according to the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges.

When they were created, community colleges were supposed to get one-third of their funding from a local sponsor, a third from the state, and a third from tuition. The county is the local sponsor for Bucks and Montgomery County Community Colleges, while the city sponsors the Community College of Philadelphia, and school districts sponsor Delaware County Community College. Students now shoulder more than half the cost as local and state aid has waned.

Some students in central and northern Pennsylvania have virtually no access to a community college without traveling a long distance or taking classes online, Research for Action said.

"It's the students who are bearing the burden for the lack of state and local investments," said Kate Shaw, executive director of Research for Action. "The question of political will is a real one, and what we hope is that this brief sparks conversations in communities that suffer all the way to Harrisburg."

Research for Action suggests that the state discontinue the policy of charging non-sponsored students more and help make up the funding difference for the schools.

Jeff Sheridan, Gov. Wolf's spokesman, said the state had boosted community college funding by $16.4 million "to help restore the funding that was cut prior to the governor taking office."

The study said the state also should encourage development of more community colleges.

But officials at the state community college commission said more colleges may not be the answer.

"Rather than focusing on how many institutions we have, it might be worthwhile to think about how does the commonwealth make sure all Pennsylvanians have access to high quality, affordable community college programming," said Elizabeth Bolden, the commission's president and CEO, "and how to bring high-quality programming to communities that don't have it in a more cost-effective way."

Several local community college leaders agreed.

Stephanie Shanblatt, president of Bucks County Community College, questioned whether some of Pennsylvania's rural areas can support a community college. She said if the goal is to relieve the cost burden for non-sponsored students, the state should consider setting money aside to offset that cost.

"So the college isn't hurt. The student isn't hurt. And you're not creating a school in an area where it would be awfully difficult to have a critical mass," she said.

Several efforts are underway to start new community colleges, including one in Erie, probably the largest population center in the state without a community college.

Philadelphia has one community college, but the study's authors say the city could benefit from more.

"A lot of cities that are smaller than us have a whole system of community colleges," said Mark Duffy, senior research associate with Research for Action.

Donald "Guy" Generals, president of Community College of Philadelphia, disagreed that another college is needed, but he said additional CCP sites should be added in areas where growth is possible. CCP already has regional centers in Northeast, Northwest, and West Philadelphia, he said.

"I think we should be in the Navy Yard," he said. "There's an opportunity in the Kensington area. Between Center City and the Northeast campus, there's a huge population that we're just not serving."

A 2015 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts showed the college is reaching only about 2.9 percent of city residents 18 or older.

"That's way below what other large cities are doing," Generals said. "We need to get that up in the 5- to 6-percentage-point range."

The college, which has 28,000 credit students, is aiming to increase enrollment by 2,700 to 3,000 by 2025, he said.

Only 6 percent of CCP students come from out of county and pay the higher pricetag. Other local community colleges serve a larger percentage of non-sponsored students: 19 percent at Montgomery County, 8 percent at Bucks County, and 30 percent at Delaware County.

Local community college presidents say they understand the concern about charging out of county students more, but emphasize that their schools rely on that revenue.

"It's complicated," said Jerry Parker, president of Delaware County Community College, which has six sites in Chester County and three in Delaware County. "I worry when people try to come up with simple solutions to this. We'd love to have all sponsors, but we depend now on revenue from our non sponsors."

If the state were to subsidize non-sponsored students, would sponsoring districts and counties want to withdraw funding? he asked.

Ten of the 15 school districts in Delaware County are full sponsors of the college, as are portions of two other districts. In the past, some of the non-sponsors have considered buying in, but decided against the investment, which would cost millions, Parker said.

About half the students interviewed at the college's Downingtown site said they were unaware they were paying more than students in Delaware County. Some students said they thought the college still was a good deal compared with tuition at a four-year school.

But they wouldn't mind a break.

Walker, 21, a nursing major from Berwyn, said his friend could afford to pay his own tuition.

"I have to split the cost with my parents," he said, "because it's double."