How plummeting enrollment and low success rates at the Community College of Allegheny County harm students and the Pittsburgh region
When the next Allegheny County executive takes the helm in January, they’ll assume influence over the county’s community college – and potentially shape its role in the community.
They’ll support the Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] financially, a responsibility that has been the subject of political dispute. They’ll appoint board members to govern the college, which serves thousands of students but has seen enrollment fall in recent years. And they could deepen the relationship with CCAC, especially after a race that saw one former candidate support free community college.
CCAC declined to make President Quintin Bullock available for an interview about the potential impacts of the upcoming leadership change and declined to respond to a list of emailed questions. In a late-March interview, Northwest Region President Evon Walters said the college was not backing a particular candidate at that time.
Walters, a member of the President’s Cabinet, said that the shift in power is an opportunity for CCAC to continue to emphasize its mission and “the transformative work that our faculty and our administrators do on a day-to-day basis.” He said he couldn’t speak to whether the change could pose challenges for the college.
Three key takeaways from this story:
- Neither of the remaining candidates have announced proposals for free community college for county residents, a component of one former candidate’s platform.
- Some members of Allegheny County Council claim that the county has historically underfunded CCAC. The county denies this.
- The county executive will appoint members to CCAC’s Board of Trustees.
“We stay in our lane in terms of being able to be that champion for the college, for the community, regardless of who is in that position,” he said.
The two candidates for county executive, Democrat Sara Innamorato and Republican Joe Rockey, fielded questions from PublicSource about their visions for and responsibilities to the college. Here’s a breakdown of what they shared:
Do the candidates support free community college?
Before losing in the Democratic primary, Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb said he planned to provide two years of free tuition at CCAC to high school graduates in the county. He estimated that his program would cost up to $60 million annually and said it would be funded through contributions from philanthropic groups, local employers and the Allegheny Regional Asset District, WESA reported.
Tuition-free programs for colleges and universities have grown nationwide, according to The Washington Post. So far, Innamorato and Rockey have not announced similar proposals.
A spokesperson for Rockey did not respond to a question on whether he would pursue a program. Innamorato told PublicSource that Lamb’s proposal interested her, but she said she wanted to confirm whether such a program would be financially feasible for the county.
“I haven’t been able to explore wholly what the opportunities for funding that would be,” she said.
The contestants for Allegheny County executive, Democratic candidate Sara Innamorato (left) and Republican candidate Joe Rockey. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource).
Innamorato also pointed to the poor student success outcomes facing community colleges nationwide and questioned whether tuition costs are a primary barrier to completion at CCAC. County residents paid $4,602 in tuition at CCAC during the 2021-2022 academic year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. About 40% of full-time students who had enrolled that fall dropped out by the next.
The county could instead invest in addressing other roadblocks that CCAC students may face, such as housing insecurity or a lack of childcare, Innamorato said. Nationally, about 42% of student parents are enrolled in community colleges. A 2021 survey of more than 80,000 community college students nationwide found that 14% were housing insecure.
“I’d hate to say, ‘Let’s definitely put money towards covering tuition’ when there might be all of these other factors at play,” she said.
How is the county funding CCAC?
In questioning the viability of a free community college program, Innamorato referenced claims from some Allegheny County Council members that the county has historically underfunded CCAC. The state’s Public School Code of 1949 says that tuition should cover, at most, a third of the college’s annual operating costs and that state and local funding make up the rest.
Innamorato said in an interview that she’d “be really interested to dive into the finances of the county and figure out: Where are we at with that obligation?” She added that covering the cost of tuition “would be quite a jump” from the state’s current requirement.
In a later statement, Innamorato said that the county and CCAC should regularly discuss how the county can support costs in the college’s capital budget, including infrastructure. She said that she would work with members of the General Assembly to prioritize state funding for community colleges.
A spokesperson for Rockey did not respond to a question on how he would prioritize funding for CCAC.
Council member Bethany Hallam has said that the county is supposed to cover a third of CCAC’s operating costs but had fallen short prior to this year. County spokesperson Amie Downs, however, disagreed. She provided PublicSource with excerpts of reports CCAC submitted to the state from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2022, which show that tuition costs made up less than a third of CCAC’s operating costs during that period.
In December, the council approved a roughly 12% funding increase for CCAC, bringing its 2023 allocation to $31.1 million. The increase was the largest that CCAC had received in at least a decade. Both Hallam and Council President Pat Catena, who also claims the county has underfunded the college for years, would like the council to approve subsequent boosts to CCAC’s budget.
Hallam, who supports Innamorato, said: “There’s so much room to grow, especially considering the lack of investment over the years, that a new administration could really start off from the very beginning saying, ‘In Allegheny County, we prioritize education. We prioritize our most valuable assets.’”
Catena added that he’d like the next executive to collaborate more with CCAC and other entities during the budget process. CCAC did not respond to a question asking for its assessment of the ways the county has collaborated with the college during the budget process.
Council Vice President John Palmiere, who sits on CCAC’s Board of Trustees, spoke positively of the support the college has received from current County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. He’s hopeful that Fitzgerald’s successor deepens the relationship.
How would the candidates appoint board members to CCAC?
The county executive is responsible for appointing members to CCAC’s Board of Trustees, with the approval of county council. The next executive will likely appoint nearly all of the 16-member board if they serve a single term.
Rockey indicated that he would prioritize technical and managerial expertise, while Innamorato said she’d seek the representation of affected constituencies.
In an interview, Rockey said he hadn’t given much thought yet to the appointments to CCAC’s board but would ensure that new members have “the qualifications to manage something with that budget and that importance inside Allegheny County, with a view towards direct-to-employment opportunities.”
He added that, in the board appointments he would make countywide, he would seek members who fill gaps and bring diverse skills, from legal to accounting expertise.
Innamorato said she’d like faculty, current students and alumni to be represented on the board, along with people with knowledge of higher education trends and the region’s workforce needs.
She said that a member who understands dual enrollment programs – where high schoolers take community college courses for credit – could help CCAC ensure that county residents are saving time and money before transitioning to four-year universities.
How could CCAC support the county’s workforce?
CCAC graduates can play a big role in bolstering the county’s workforce: About 85% of 2021 graduates went on to live and work in the region, according to statistics from the college. Rockey said that CCAC should place greater emphasis on its trade programming to help meet the region’s needs.
“What I would say is not necessarily about CCAC. It’s about, ‘Are we preparing folks to stay in Allegheny County for the jobs in Allegheny County?’” Rockey said. “We need to make sure we have a clear path, with CCAC, as to what jobs are being needed and necessary for the future of Allegheny County.”
Innamorato said she’d like to ensure the county is utilizing CCAC to fill vacancies within county government. She also wants to partner with local employers to identify broader gaps in the workforce, then work with CCAC and the county’s higher education institutions to help fill them.
“If people are using CCAC as a springboard to their job or to another university, then we need to make sure that those systems are streamlined so that students are making the most efficient use of their limited time and resources,” she said.
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Tanya Babbar.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.