Erie, Pa. Wins Years-long Fight to Establish Community College

Community college advocates in Erie County, Pa. have secured a long-fought victory to open the first new community college in Pennsylvania in 27 years, and only the third new community college established nationwide in the last decade.

The Pennsylvania State Board of Education on Wednesday approved a comprehensive community college plan developed by nonprofit advocacy group, Empower Erie, and sponsored by Erie County Government.

The approval concludes a three-year battle to establish the state’s 15th community college as a means to energize workforce development and enhance the region’s economic competitiveness. The community college will provide affordable, accessible education desperately needed in a city that includes one of the nation’s poorest zip codes.

“We finally opened a door that had been slammed shut to underserved urban and rural communities in Erie County,” said Empower Erie’s co-founder Ron DiNicola. “We envision a world-class workforce development center that will serve as an economic engine to provide socio-economic mobility and equity for everyone in our community.”

For decades, community college advocates have demanded the state make good on the promise of the Community College Act of 1963, which called for a community college within commuting distance of every Pennsylvanian.

The closest community college to Erie is 100 miles away in Butler, Pa. Research from Empower Erie determined that Erie is the only U.S. city of its size or larger without a free-standing community college.

“For decades, the citizens of Erie County have been paying state taxes to support 14 existing community colleges without reaping any of the benefits,” said Erie County Councilman Carl Anderson III. “Today marks the first tangible step toward righting that wrong.”

Once an industrial powerhouse, as the home to the largest natural harbor on the Great Lakes, Erie is in the midst of an economic transformation built around tourism, healthcare, manufacturing, and a growing number of start-ups.

Empower Erie built a diverse coalition of business and political leaders, Labor, educators, nonprofits, community advocates and faith leaders to mobilize against powerful political forces  opposed to the effort.

“Leaders of every faith community united behind the shared belief that this was the moral issue of our time in Erie County,”  said Empower Erie Board member Rev. Charles Mock. “Now hope of a better future is alive for everyone in our community, regardless of socio-economic status, race, or background.”