LEWISTOWN - The local effort to bring a community college to Mifflin County has not been without setbacks, but organizers continue to press on toward their goal of providing Juniata Valley residents with access to higher education. That opportunity could come as early as fall of 2013, Walter Asonevich, president of Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, said Wednesday at a meeting held at Lewistown Country Club.
"We want to get more people college ready," he urged.
Providing transferable education and job training at an affordable rate offers more students the opportunity for higher education, he said.
Sentinel photo by BUFFIE BOYER
Dr. Walter Asonevich, president of the Pennsylvania Highlands Community College of Johnstown, speaks about the college opening a branch campus in Lewistown at the PA CareerLink building during a luncheon Wednesday at the Lewistown Country Club.
PHCC was founded as a community college in Cambria County in 1994. Since then, the college has expanded to Richland, Ebensburg, Huntingdon and Somerset. Huntingdon was the most recent branch and has been in operation since January of last year, Asonevich said.
The results of a feasibility and market study illustrated that Mifflin County could also support a PHCC academic center. Asonevich said the county already has vacant space in the CareerLink building that can be utilized as three classrooms and a reception area.
John Czerniakowski, local community college coordinator, estimates that starting costs would total $400,000 for the first three years of operation. The program would be large enough to offer general studies, business administration, criminal justice, nursing and teacher education, Asonevich said.
Benefits to a community college begin as early as high school. Asonevich said students can begin classes as freshmen and earn enough credits to obtain an associate degree by high school graduation. James Estep, superintendent of the Mifflin County School District, said his son is currently in ninth grade and enrolled in an associate degree program. His first six credits cost $234 and will transfer to the college of his choice. By graduation, Estep's son will have 61 credits under his belt for around $4,000.
"As a dad, I see a real opportunity here for my son," Estep said.
As a school leader, he recognizes the same opportunity for other students. Asonevich said 70 to 80 percent of community college enrollments are first generation college students; a statistic that has not PHCC changed for years. Providing those individuals with access to higher education drives the community economically and strengthens the workforce, he said.
"People don't go to college to take classes. They go to college to earn degrees ... they want that credential" Asonevich said.
He assured the community that PHCC was committed to providing that service to Mifflin County. PHCC is accredited by the Middle States Commission on High Education, which also accredits larger schools including Penn State University, Cornell University and John Hopkins University. All credits earned through PHCC will transfer to virtually any college in the country, Asonevich said.
Local and state funding and support will determine how quickly the college can get up and running. Asonevich said classes could begin as early as fall 2013, or may be delayed until January 2014.
State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, said Pennsylvania has seen a $500 million decrease in state funding, but budgeting is a matter of priorities.
"We have to make decisions on where our priorities are," he said. "This is a worthy investment."
Corman said community colleges are access points for students coming out of high school or adults returning to school. Though the project has seen setbacks in past years, Corman is confident that this is a start for the Juniata Valley.
"This isn't the end, this is the beginning of a community college presence in the area," he said.
For more information about Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, visit www.pennhighlands.edu.