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Inquirer Editorial: Pennsylvania needs a unified community college system

Pennsylvania should do more than a spackle-and-paint job to improve its balkanized community college system so it's easier for high school graduates and older adults to get the skills to obtain good jobs in the 21st century.

Pennsylvania has a Commission for Community Colleges; but it is a nonprofit, not a state agency. The lack of a unified system means tuition may vary depending on where a student lives. A Delaware County Community College student who lives in Chester County told staff writer Susan Snyder he pays double the tuition of a friend who attends the same school but lives in Delaware County.

While many four-year colleges set higher tuition rates for out-of-state students that seems unfair for students who may live within a few miles of each other. The lack of a unified system whose growth is coordinated has also left Pennsylvania with fewer community colleges than any other state, 14, with none in some areas that need them the most.

A 1971 master plan called for 28 community colleges, but few were created outside larger, urban areas such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Reading. A requirement that community colleges get a third of their funding from local sources was likely an obstacle in less affluent location.

That requirement also plays a role in the setting of tuition rates, with counties and school districts that sponsor a local community college not legally obligated to subsidize the tuition of students from another county or school district.

A simple fix would be for the state to subsidize all community college tuitions to make them uniform. That would require the governor and legislature to give community colleges more than the $16.4 million increase they received in the current state budget, but it would be money well spent.

By 2020, an estimated 30 percent of all job openings will require at least some college or an associate's degree. President Obama has urged more states to provide tuition-free community colleges. Community College of Philadelphia offers free tuition to low-income students, but that standard should be statewide.

Since Pennsylvania is sometimes compared to Alabama bookended by Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, perhaps it should use the Alabama Community College System as a model. The 50-year-old system funded by the state includes 25 comprehensive community colleges and technical schools with its own board of trustees.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Council of County Colleges operates 19 community colleges with campuses in 63 locations. The council says students rarely have to drive more than 20 minutes to reach a classroom.

Other states could also provide guidance for Pennsylvania. For example, Tennessee uses state lottery funds to pay tuition and fees for community college students with a minimum 2.0 grade point average. Oregon budgets $10 million annually to provide tuition waivers for students with at least a 2.5 GPA.

It's time for Pennsylvania, whose legislators argue over the inadequate funding they give K-12 schools, to understand that the next level of education for the state's children matters just as much.

Inquirer Editorial Board