Dr. Mark Erickson
Dr. Mark Erickson

Pennsylvania’s community colleges appreciate the opportunity to participate in this virtual hearing to discuss the delivery of postsecondary education during the COVID‐19 pandemic and recommendations for Pennsylvania’s approach to higher education.

Community colleges are essential to the Commonwealth’s higher education system, offering a broad range of educational opportunities to all Pennsylvania residents. Collectively, the Commission’s member institutions educate more than a quarter million students annually and are the largest provider of public postsecondary and workforce education in the Commonwealth.

Community colleges are agile, built to respond quickly to local and regional needs. During this unprecedented global pandemic, Pennsylvania community colleges did what they have been doing for more than 50 years – they adapted instructional delivery methods, supported the communities they serve, and launched newly identified programs to meet workforce needs.

The community college student‐centric model – which has always emphasized flexibility, particularly in course design, delivery, and schedule – was well suited to provide a foundation for the colleges to respond to the pandemic.

Initially, and in compliance with orders issued by Gov. Wolf, the colleges transitioned to remote delivery of all possible instruction and services. Colleges reached out to students to help those without the resources to continue their education. They developed tutorials to assist students in using new technology and continued to provide support services to help students succeed. Also, recognizing that more than half of community college students are considered low‐income, the colleges maintained access to food pantries, expanded virtual student services and increased access to mental health resources.

As someone who has worked in higher education for 42 years – 16 as a college president and nine as president of Northampton Community College (NCC) – I can honestly say I do not remember a more challenging time for students and faculty. Last March when the pandemic began, NCC pivoted from mostly in‐person to fully remote instruction in a matter of weeks. This was a new modality for many faculty members and most students. While this may sound straightforward, the transition required a herculean effort and extraordinary agility on the part of students, faculty, and the college. NCC rapidly put in place training for faculty and students regarding online instruction, and moved its entire academic and student support services virtually to ensure uninterrupted service. The college also provided computers and wireless hotspots to students who could not afford or obtain them independently.

NCC also moved quickly to put in place strict protocols – such as temperature checks, social distancing, frequent disinfecting, and a health check delivered via mobile app – for anyone who needed to be on campus, all informed by guidelines offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. This helped to ensure the safety of NCC community members. Most faculty and staff began to work remotely; visitors were not allowed on campus.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the NCC senior leadership team met twice daily and through weekends to map the path forward. That path included the creation of an Infectious Disease Task Force with representation from St. Luke’s University Health Network to inform the college’s work, evaluate cases, conduct contact tracing, perform testing, and review college policies. Throughout the year, the task force met regularly to review college efforts and believes NCC has been successful in mitigating the spread of COVID‐19 on its campus.

Community college students and members of their families – including those at NCC – have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, with many losing jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors while contracting COVID‐19 in higher percentages than the general population.

Students have also faced challenges related to remote learning, such as lack of internet connectivity or broadband access, lack of technology, an absence of space for learning at home, or being a primary caregiver for aging parents or children. For many of these students, food insecurity is also a daily reality as they struggle to pay the rent and cover life’s most basic necessities. In response to this – and in addition to offering hot spots and computers – NCC set up a hot spot in a parking lot for students who wanted to access Wi‐Fi from their cars.

NCC faculty, staff, and friends raised thousands of dollars to help students with such needs. As many colleges and universities did across the state and nation, NCC also implemented a Pass/Fail option for struggling students to encourage them to stay enrolled.

After the initial rapid response to the pandemic, NCC evaluated other student needs and found student mental health was an area of particular concern. Pressure from course work, jobs and families can be significant during normal times. The pandemic added stress – from the sudden changes in daily life, uncertainty about the future and fear of contracting the virus – to the already full plates of students. NCC rapidly expanded online resources for counseling, financial aid, academic advising and other vital student services. Faculty and staff reached out to more than 10,000 students individually by telephone to conduct wellness checks and offer resources and assistance.

As the pandemic continued, NCC and other community colleges regularly sought advice from experts, consulted the state and federal government for guidance and surveyed faculty, staff and students to develop plans for the future.

NCC established many flexible options for student learning and student services as permitted by national, state, and local requirements including that from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Pennsylvania Department of Health, accreditors and other agencies. Collectively, Pennsylvania community colleges are committed to fulfilling their missions while keeping their communities, students, faculty and staff safe. Although plans vary by institution, they prioritize health and safety and include plans in the event of COVID‐19 among students, faculty, staff or another individual on campus.

Currently, the majority of instruction at Pennsylvania’s community colleges is occurring in a remote, online format. The colleges are increasing hybrid and in‐person instruction as circumstances and resources permit. Instruction and assessment for students whose education was disrupted and need to complete coursework in order to enter the workforce is a priority. The colleges are also focusing on expanding opportunities for in‐person instruction in programs such as Allied Health, CDL, Emergency Services and other essential industries.

NCC added in‐person courses in Summer 2020 that provided opportunities for students to complete courses from Spring 2020 that required some in‐person instruction, such as science labs or clinicals for Nursing. Building on that, in Fall 2020, NCC provided multiple flexible learning modalities for students that better matched their learning preferences, including remote instruction, hybrid learning (half remote/half in‐person), and fully in‐person instruction that adhered to federal and state guidelines. Based on the success of NCC’s COVID‐19 mitigation efforts, the college expanded in‐person offering to approximately 20 percent of total instruction.

While remote learning has been embraced by a significant portion of students, a sizable cohort struggles in this modality. In fact, NCC surveyed students in the fall and found concerns about remote instruction were particularly pronounced in gateway and remedial courses. Based on this information, the college added more in‐person courses in these subjects for Spring 2021, moving the overall inperson course percentage to approximately one third. As leadership looks to next fall, NCC plans to provide at least 50 percent of courses in‐person, with hopes that successful vaccine rollout allows the college to increase this conservative projection.

For many students, the engagement that comes with in‐person activities and classes enriches their learning experience and enhances the likelihood of their postsecondary success. Offering daily inperson interaction with professors and classmates, service or volunteer opportunities, and involvement in student clubs or athletics is a priority for Fall 2021 at NCC. Community colleges also recognize that, for other students, the flexibility afforded by remote learning is very appealing. NCC projects that, moving forward, remote learning options at the college will remain higher than prior to the pandemic.

Federal assistance allocated to community colleges through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) and Governors Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds has provided critical funding to community college students and helped financially stabilize our institutions. Student funds were used for critical expenses such as food, housing, course materials, technology, healthcare and childcare. Institutional funds were used by the colleges to buy laptops and webcams to loan to students and staff for remote work, provide tuition refunds, purchase new course materials and software for online instruction, sanitize facilities, and run additional sections due to classroom capacity limitations, just to name a few.

Together the community colleges are committed to their role as community anchors and economic engines, and will continue the long‐held tradition of offering affordable, accessible, highquality education and workforce development programs. While educational delivery will continue to evolve, the core mission of community colleges remains unchanged. Our accessible institutions of higher learning will continue to provide quality, affordable educational opportunities, relevant workforce training for family‐sustaining careers and holistic supports to students. Community colleges will further leverage technology to build quality programs and engage learners, while being responsive and adaptable to additional change.

As the Commonwealth looks to the future, the Commission offers the following recommendations for consideration by the General Assembly:

Expand Postsecondary Access and Affordability
Pennsylvania should pursue policies and investment strategies that will expand access to affordable, high‐quality postsecondary opportunities for all Pennsylvanians. Pennsylvania’s 48th place ranking in both affordability of postsecondary education and funding per student has resulted in the Commonwealth’s second‐to‐last ranking in levels of student debt for graduates. Pennsylvania’s community colleges are the postsecondary option of choice for hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians each year, but affordability and access remain a challenge for students.

Improve Postsecondary Readiness
While Pennsylvania had made progress on many measures of academic achievement, too many Pennsylvania students enroll in postsecondary study and cannot successfully complete collegelevel coursework. Each year, approximately 60 percent of students enrolling in Pennsylvania community colleges require at least one developmental education course. The community colleges expect that this number will increase given the pandemic‐related disruptions to the delivery of education and the anticipated learning loss among secondary education students, particularly those planning to enroll in postsecondary study in Fall 2021. Community colleges have implemented a range of evidenced‐based strategies to improve outcomes for underprepared students and are eager to provide pre‐postsecondary enrollment programs for students to ensure they are prepared to seamlessly transition to postsecondary study.

NCC has been working in partnership with local school districts to better prepare high school students for the transition to college, targeting students needing additional math and English support. The goal of the partnership is to improve math and English competency and allow placement directly into college‐level courses, rather than remedial courses, and to provide an overall experience that increases college readiness.

The success of the program is encouraging and is a testament to the student‐focus of administrators and leaders at both NCC and in the participating school districts. In addition to the math and English programs, NCC offers partnering school districts the opportunity to enroll students in its college success course. The course is embedded in the high school curriculum but taught by NCC staff. Students who successfully complete the course are given college credit. To date, 403 high school students have successfully completed the college success course, demonstrating the necessary academic skills and growth mindset needed to be successful in postsecondary education.

As educators at all levels contend with the disruption that COVID‐19 has caused students, community colleges are ready and eager to offer their expertise and resources.

Support Dual Enrollment/Early College
Dual enrollment (sometimes referred to as concurrent enrollment) or early college – programs in which secondary students enroll in postsecondary coursework and receive both college and high school credit simultaneously – is used by high school students to explore college options and earn college credit prior to high school graduation. Dual enrollment is a proven policy associated with a range of positive outcomes including reduced time‐to‐degree, quicker entrance into the workforce, increased high school graduation rates, improved postsecondary attainment rates (even after controlling for student, family, schooling achievements, and school context factors), reduced cost‐to‐degree, and lower student debt.

As the uncertainty caused by the pandemic continues, dual enrollment offers a way to ensure high school students have access to high‐quality instruction through their local districts. Pennsylvania should be doing everything it can to ensure its students can receive quality, college‐level coursework that will propel them to postsecondary success, particularly given the current uncertainties associated with national standardized tests.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is one of only two states that does not offer a statewide dual enrollment program. The Pennsylvania Department of Education previously administered a grant program to support dual enrollment opportunities for students (Article XVI‐B of the Public School Code, 24 P.S. §§ 1601‐B‐1615‐B). This program awarded grants to school districts and area vocational technical schools to fund dual enrollment opportunities. The appropriation that supported the grant program for dual enrollment was eliminated in FY 2011‐12. As a result, there have been significant changes in dual enrollment programs statewide. A variety of structures and funding mechanisms were implemented, but they have not been able to support a robust and equitable dual enrollment/early college framework across the state.

Pennsylvania’s community colleges have been enthusiastic partners with secondary education in offering dual enrollment opportunities for students. Student enrollment in dual enrollment courses at Pennsylvania’s community colleges steadily increased for several years, but growth has stalled with the lack of state support. During the 2019‐20 academic year, 19,950 high school students were enrolled in Pennsylvania community college courses. This represents a 58 percent increase since 2009‐10, brought about by the increased focus and commitment of Pennsylvania’s community colleges to ensure that Pennsylvania secondary school students have the opportunity to experience the benefits of dual enrollment. However, in order for all Pennsylvania secondary school students to have access to dual enrollment, the Commonwealth needs to implement a statewide program.

Improving Public‐Public Postsecondary Transfer
The complexities of the transfer process in Pennsylvania can be a barrier for students who want to transfer from a Pennsylvania community college to a public four‐year institution. The Commonwealth should guarantee that students who receive an associate’s degree from a Pennsylvania community college can transfer to Pennsylvania’s public four‐year universities with full junior standing. Improving the transfer process can increase the number of community college students who successfully achieve their goal of attaining a baccalaureate degree.

Eliminate Outdated Mandates
Community colleges have identified several areas of operation that are costly and burdensome. The colleges urge the General Assembly to consider policy, regulatory and statutory relief to allow the colleges to modernize and operate more effectively and efficiently. These mandate relief requests include:

o Provide temporary and targeted immunity for community colleges.
Community colleges are developing extensive plans to foster the health and safety of their campus communities. However, even as they proceed with phased reopening, concerns remain about potential liability that could result from resuming on‐campus operations. The colleges urge the General Assembly to consider providing temporary and targeted legal protections to help the colleges address these hurdles. Such protections are needed as the colleges strive to provide a high‐quality educational experience in a safe environment. Even when the colleges follow all the guidance from federal, state, and local authorities, it is not possible to guarantee that individuals will not be exposed to, or contract COVID‐19. The colleges must have enhanced protections from frivolous or opportunistic lawsuits alleging exposure to the virus.

o Eliminate the requirement for colleges to submit the tuition compliance calculations and related worksheets pursuant to Title 22, Section 35.29(d).
The calculation and the accompanying worksheets are no longer relevant, as reductions in state and/or local operating support results in a greater reliance on tuition revenue. Therefore, holding the colleges accountable for tuition compliance in an environment where state and local sponsors do not maintain their statutory commitment is inequitable. The elimination of this calculation would reduce the administrative and financial burden at the colleges and lower expenses, as the colleges’ independent
auditors would no longer charge for time spent calculating and/or verifying calculations. The Commission recommends eliminating this section in its entirety.

o Exempt community colleges from the Separations Act (71 P.S. §1618) or increase the project dollar threshold.
The Separations Act, enacted in 1913, requires construction projects over a certain threshold to solicit three separate bids and award multiple contracts. This requirement does not reflect changes in the construction industry that have occurred since its
enactment more than 100 years ago and does not provide flexibility for colleges to determine the most appropriate method to bid and complete projects.

The requirements of the Separations Act hinder efficient construction at the colleges and effective use of public dollars. The Commission recommends exempting community colleges from the provisions of the Separations Act or raising the threshold for projects requiring three bids to $50,000.

o Amend the Public School Code, Article XIX‐A to provide for community colleges to award baccalaureate degrees.
Allowing community colleges to confer baccalaureate degrees – particularly in applied areas such as health care and technology – will help Pennsylvania meet the needs of employers and provide an affordable pathway to a baccalaureate degree for students
who do not have the resources or ability to attend a traditional four‐year university. The community college baccalaureate degree is also a demonstrated strategy to address racial inequalities. Twenty‐three states currently allow community colleges to
award bachelor’s degrees including New York, Illinois, Texas and Florida where programs have experienced growth and student interest.

Pennsylvania’s higher education landscape includes nearly 350 postsecondary institutions, including public, private, for‐profit, and not‐for‐profit. The Commonwealth should have a comprehensive postsecondary education strategy to guide the funding and policy decisions that impact these entities to ensure that Commonwealth funds are being used in the most effective and efficient manner possible, eliminating unnecessary and wasteful duplication.

For over 50 years, community colleges have transformed Pennsylvania’s higher education landscape and are now proud to be the largest provider of public postsecondary education and training in the Commonwealth. The education and workforce training offered by Pennsylvania’s community colleges prepares students and alumni for family‐sustaining careers in high‐demand industries. The colleges are vital to the Commonwealth’s economy, workforce pipelines for regional employers and Pennsylvanians seeking to build better lives through postsecondary attainment. In a post‐pandemic Pennsylvania, the responsive, quality education and training offered by community colleges will be more important than ever. The affordable transfer programs and career‐focused courses that community colleges offer will be essential to Pennsylvania’s economic recovery.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony. The Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges and its member institutions look forward to working with the Chairmen, and Members of the Committee to chart a course towards the Commonwealth’s prosperous future.