Pennsylvania State Education Secretary in Johnstown

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera holds a meeting with local education leaders on the new Pa. Smart funding for science & technology education at Penn Highlands Community College in Richland Township on Wednesday, February 13, 2019.

Since taking office, Gov. Tom Wolf has made workforce training a priority, investing a steady stream of state aid to support training-to-work programs, apprenticeships and other efforts to prepare residents for local jobs that are in-demand across the state.

A visit by Wolf’s education secretary this week gave Pennsylvania Highlands Community College officials a chance to remind the governor’s office they are working to fill that gap, too, college President Walter Asonevich said.

“I think community colleges often get forgotten, because we’re very much involved in workforce education,” he said Thursday. “But it’s gotten to the point ... we’re not getting funded as well as we should be.”

Wolf outlined his 2020 fiscal year budget proposal last week. It includes a list of efforts to increase career training opportunities aimed at steering a generation of workers toward available jobs.

Community college officials across the state have voiced frustration about it, saying the spending plan would keep operational funding flat for the coming year, at a time when many, Pennsylvania Highlands included, are trying to add more workforce development programs and keep tuition low.

“Community colleges were created to meet regional needs for workforce training, and to ensure that access to a college education remains local and affordable,” Asonevich said. “We feel that the governor may not be well informed about the mission and challenges faced by community colleges in Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania Highlands, with locations in Richland, Ebensburg, Somerset and Blair County, offers both degree programs and a list of career training opportunities in fields such as business and healthcare. College officials in the Johnstown area have been working to build partnerships to provide customizable industry and business workforce training initiatives at its new downtown Johnstown center.

Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretery Pedro Rivera spoke at Penn Highlands to outline the state’s PaSmart Initiative this week. He told The Tribune-Democrat on Wednesday that the state is directing $498,000 to a consortium of Cambria, Somerset, Bedford and Blair county schools and educators to create new science and technology-focused education opportunities across the region.

Asonevich praised the idea but noted the funding’s focus is narrow, by design.

“It won’t help us build our engineering technology program ... or hire new faculty to support the kind of workforce development efforts we’d like to launch,” he said.

Pennsylvania Highlands, which has served more than 1,500 students annually in recent years, is the state’s smallest community college, and that creates unique issues, Asonevich said.

Because of that, overhead costs become a bigger issue, Asonevich said.

“Because we are generally dealing with low-income people, we try to keep tuition low – allowing them to receive the bulk of their education through Pell grants, instead of loans that will leave them in debt later,” he said. “We rely on help from the state.”

Due to the school’s overhead and small enrollment, the cost to add one new full-time teacher is $2 per-credit hour, compared to the average of 35 cents per credit hour statewide, he said.

A governor’s office spokesman was reached for comment Thursday but did not immediately have a response regarding how his proposed budget would impact community colleges.

Wolf, however, has proposed a plan this year to directly aid community college students with tuition costs.

As outlined, $8 million would be set aside to provide $2,500 grants to students who complete their education and then remain in the state to work, Wolf’s office has said.

“If you’re willing to put your newly-acquired skills to work here in our commonwealth, the least we can do is help you avoid carrying around a crushing burden of student debt,” Wolf said in his budget address earlier this month.

Wolf’s proposal for the 2020 budget year serves as a starting point for state lawmakers to swap their own proposals and begin budget talks this year before the current fiscal year expires June 30.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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