Stressed by years of flagging government funding, the Community College of Beaver County has announced it will raise tuition by 17 percent in the next academic year.
But college officials know they cannot continue down that path without sacrificing their brand as an affordable gateway to higher education.
To cope with rising costs and diminished help, they are considering an ambitious plan: A merger with Butler County Community College. The merger would create a regional institution that could eventually serve almost all of western Pennsylvania.
Butler County Community College’s board has not said whether it is interested in the plan or not, said Dr. Joseph Forrester, the president of Community College of Beaver County.
It is just one of the ways community colleges are trying to provide the classes students need at costs they can afford. The state House of Representatives is considering the creation of a special task force to examine the plight of community colleges in the Commonwealth.
In the short term, there is one thing that is probably not on the table: More money.
The governor’s proposal does not call for any increase in funding for any of the state’s public institutions of higher learning — including community colleges. The community college network, though, has gone without a budget boost since 2007-08, Forrester said.
There is no comparable community college north of Butler County Community College, Forrester said, and none south of the Community College of Beaver County. So, the merged institution could eventually dominate the market throughout all of western Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Community College Commission noted that since the Great Recession began, enrollment at the 14 community colleges in the Commonwealth has risen to 430,000 students —the largest undergraduate population in Pennsylvania public higher education.
In the original community college funding formula, the state, county and the student were all supposed to contribute an equal one-third toward the cost of tuition, said Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County. Longietti is a member of the House Education Committee, which last week voted unanimously to approve a measure that would create a community college affordability task force.
As the state and local governments have frozen funding, community colleges have been forced to put more of the burden on the backs of the students, he said.
Longietti said the committee was told that in some cases, 75 percent of the college’s cost is coming through tuition.
Students pay roughly 60 percent of the cost at the Community College of Beaver County. The state’s share is down to 21 percent, Forrester said.
“Too much of the burden is being shifted to the student, threatening accessibility to what is intended to be the state’s most affordable avenue to a college degree,” Jamie Yates, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Community College Commission. “It’s especially troubling considering the median income of a community college student is $26,000.”
State Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, said that while the state has not increased funding for community colleges in years, the state has taken action to make a community college education more valuable. Last year, the state passed a law that requires state universities accept transfer credits from community colleges, he said.