Distance Education Grant Makes Online Degrees & Certificates More Affordable

In 2015, Chelsey Sirmons IV decided to change his life. Taking advantage of the Pennsylvania State Grant distance education pilot program, he was able to enroll at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in 2017 and begin reshaping his future.

In long-term recovery himself, Mr. Sirmons started at CCAC by pursuing a certificate in the college’s drug and alcohol program. He is now continuing his education, working towards his associate degree with plans to transfer to Chatham University after graduation and possibly attain a master’s degree thereafter.

“I think it’s time for me to help other people,” said Mr. Sirmons. “Educating myself and becoming a social worker, it’s one way for me to give back.”

The social work program is just one of nearly 20 associate degrees CCAC plans to offer in the fall 2019 semester that can be completed entirely online, in addition to many more that can be completed partially online. Students from anywhere can enroll in these courses because they do not need to physically travel to a location to access education, removing a major barrier some students face.

Mr. Sirmons receives grant money to subsidize some of the cost of his education through a distance education pilot program administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, or PHEAA.

“The grant makes everything more affordable. Without the grant, I’d have to take out — and eventually pay off — more student loans,” shared Mr. Sirmons. “Being a nontraditional student, distance education allows me to complete assignments on my time and improves my state of mind. My family is proud of me.”

During the State Grant distance education pilot program, increasing numbers of students at Pennsylvania’s community colleges sought financial assistance through the program, with 7,690 students receiving more than $7 million to support their postsecondary attainment goals. Act 5 of 2018 allows students who enroll in online programs to access the State Grant Program, thereby providing financial support to many thousand more Commonwealth students.

Because of this, the demand for online coursework has risen significantly. Pennsylvania community colleges were quick to respond, collectively establishing more than 150 programs that can be completed entirely online.

The PHEAA Board of Directors will vote March 21 on whether to fully integrate distance education into the Pennsylvania State Grant Program. Integration will help ensure that Pennsylvania-based institutions — including the Commonwealth’s community colleges — remain an affordable option for Pennsylvania students. Without full integration, students may be denied the financial support they need to access postsecondary study simply because they choose to enroll in an online course.

“Even though I don’t physically go to the campus, I’m still a student enrolled at CCAC,” said Mr. Sirmons. “I deserve access to the same grant funds as every other Pennsylvania student.”

Q&A with Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr., Minority Chair of the House Education Committee

Responses provided by Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr.’s Office

Q: Why is education in Pennsylvania important to you?
A: As a leader in education, I recognize that the future of our economy and workforce are dependent upon a highly trained and qualified employee.  I support funding for Community Colleges and the expansion of existing, and development of new, career pathways for students.

Q: What knowledge, background or skills do you bring to the Community College Caucus?
A: I am a former professor having spent 14 years in the classroom.  In addition, I have been the Chairman of the House Democratic Education Committee for the past 18 years, as well as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Community College of Philadelphia and have been actively involved in the issues facing our Community Colleges.

Q: How would you describe the impact of community colleges in your district and statewide?
A: Community colleges provide young people with a foundation on which to build successful lives.  It affords them the opportunity to better themselves and to reach their dreams.

Q: What motivates you to improve access to education in Pennsylvania?
A: If we want to keep up with the ever-changing workforce, Pennsylvania needs to prioritize increasing attainment of education certificates and associates degrees for our working families.  Community Colleges help achieve that by providing the most affordable options for students to obtain a degree.

Q: What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing community colleges in the Commonwealth?
A: One issue facing community colleges is keeping the students in school until graduation. The primary challenge is remedial students who struggle at the beginning of their college career, and shortly give up and drop out before completing their degree.  We need to close the gap! Students need to come ready to learn.

Across the board, the price of attending college has risen dramatically in recent years. While Community college has been the most affordable option, they are no longer the exception to this trend.

Q: Anything else?
A: Investing in higher education, and in community colleges in particular, is one of the best investments a state can make. Pennsylvania needs to improve its investment in its community colleges to ensure they remain an accessible and affordable pathway to higher education for students.


With Help from the KEYS Program, Single Mother Finds Success at Community College

Two years ago, Valerie Bible was a single mother of three who was working full-time in a metal coating factory.

Her oldest son, who was nine at the time, knew his Mom dreamed of going to college. One day he made her a promise. “When I go to college, I’ll pay for you, Mom.”

Around that same time, Ms. Bible’s hands began experiencing an adverse reaction to chemicals used in the metal coating process. She knew it was time for a change.

Inspired by her son, she enrolled in Community College of Beaver County. Thanks to the college’s KEYS Program, Ms. Bible had help with transportation, cash assistance and an advocate who could help her education journey.

“As a Mom, things came up. I’m not a traditional student, but the KEYS Program at CCBC allowed me to succeed,” said Ms. Bible.

KEYS Programs, which are overseen by the PA Department of Human Services, operate at community colleges across the Commonwealth. Most offer local resources for financial literacy, transportation, food assistance, domestic violence intervention, clothing, child care and mental health services. The aim of the KEYS Program is to address barriers that prevent students from becoming successful and financially secure.

Ms. Bible is currently enrolled in the business administration program at CCBC, with plans to transfer to a four-year institution following graduation. She is excelling in her classwork, recently becoming a member of Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) Honor Society.

“I made my son proud,” she said. “I’m grateful for the KEYS Program – I wouldn’t have been a successful student without it.”

Q&A with Rep. Marcia Hahn, Community College Caucus Co-Chair

Responses provided by Rep. Marcia Hahn’s Office

Q: Why is education in Pennsylvania important to you?

A: Nelson Mandela framed the issue perfectly when he said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” It is something that one can take pride in as the result of hard work and perseverance, and claim as the foundation for a fruitful, productive life.

Its value can be best measured in a story I recently read about a young man from Philadelphia who grew up living in homeless shelters, a hospital bed and motel rooms. He worked hard to get accepted into a full-scholarship boarding high school for students from single-parent families with limited financial resources.

Good grades earned him the title of class valedictorian. He applied to several schools and was accepted by Harvard. He achieved all this despite an upbringing mired in poverty.

Q: How would you describe the impact of community colleges in your district and statewide?

A: Lehigh Valley residents are fortunate to have in our backyard Northampton Community College (NCC), which serves as a shining example of what these institutions are capable of and can offer. There was a time when community colleges were known more for being simply an “affordable alternative.” They are now much more than just a place to obtain an education at a lower dollar figure.

NCC is a two-time winner of the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund Grant, whose goal is to increase the annual number of U.S. students studying in Latin America and the Caribbean to 100,000 and bring 100,000 students to the United States by 2020.It serves more than 35,000 students a year in credit and non-credit programs and is the only community college in Pennsylvania to offer on-campus housing.

Four years ago, NCC was one of only nine colleges and universities in the country to achieve “Green Ribbon” status for stewardship of the environment and leadership in environmental education. For the last two years, NCC has been a member of the OSHA Training network for employers throughout the Northeast region.

Community colleges still offer a less expensive education than many of their counterparts. Now, they do so in addition to serving as a solid post-secondary choice and a destination for talented students who wish to better themselves.

Q: What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing community colleges in the Commonwealth?

A: I feel community colleges still must deal somewhat with the stigma of only being something more affordable. Showing that you are more than that image implies is very much an individual responsibility, which is why I am so proud to see the hard work done by Northampton Community College.

No matter the cost of a school’s tuition, debt incurred is a challenge for all students. That is why I support Gov. Tom Wolf s proposal to create a PA Tuition Assistance Program, which will help alleviate economic burdens and encourage future employment within Pennsylvania.

Single Mother of Three Received Help at Delaware County Community College

Adopted from a press release by Anthony Tywman, Assistant to the President for Communications at Delaware County Community College

More than 1,500 students received associate degrees and certificates from Delaware County Community College in May 2018.

The event’s commencement speaker was also the Alumni Professional Achievement Award winner, Habibah Sulayman Smith, who graduated from Delaware County Community College in 2004. Smith is a project specialist for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Runaway and Homeless Youth Program.

Nearly two decades ago, Smith, then a 26-year-old, single mother with three kids who was struggling not to become homeless a second time, came to Delaware County Community College seeking an education and a better life for her children. Today, Smith is married, no longer homeless and using her life experiences to encourage others – especially young women – to never give up and keep striving for their goals. She is an author, inspirational speaker and life coach who has served more than 17 years in the social service field working to better the lives of women and children.

Below are excerpts from Smith’s speech last year:

“Eighteen years ago, when I got off the Route 112 bus on my way to my first day of class at Delaware County Community College, I didn’t know anyone whose life looked like mine. I was a 26-year-old, single mom of three children, who was an inch away from being homeless again. I couldn’t find anyone whose story sounded like mine. All I knew was that I needed the lives of my children to be better than my life had been, so I started. I started writing the book that I so desperately needed to read, but couldn’t find. It was a story of redemption, second chances, and purpose being birthed from the most painful times in my life…

“My most impactful work didn’t come solely from my education, or credentials. It came when I was willing to share my story with other teenaged mothers as proof that they could make it. I’m not unique or special — each one of us has some gift that can be used to not only to make a living, but create a legacy that lasts long after you are gone.”

Smith is one example of the ways in which Pennsylvania community colleges support single parents as they strive to attain their educational goals and enhance their careers.

Statement on the passing of Ray Steffler, former trustee and board chairman of Butler County Community College

Statement on the passing of Ray Steffler, former trustee and board chairman of Butler County Community College

“Ray Steffler, an alumnus of Butler County Community College, was the longest-serving trustee and board chairman in the BC3’s history,” said Elizabeth Bolden, president & CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. “College trustees commit to upholding fiduciary responsibility for the institution, preserving its reputation, protecting the college’s mission, and overseeing the obligations of the president. Without dedicated and knowledgeable trustees like Mr. Steffler, community colleges in Pennsylvania would not be equipped to offer the quality, affordable higher education on which they pride themselves.”

Pennsylvania Community College Leaders Express Disappointment over Proposed Funding Following 2019 Budget Address

Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges president & CEO Elizabeth Bolden and leaders from Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges today expressed disappointment that the 2019-20 fiscal year budget proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf does not provide an operating or capital funding increase for the colleges.

“No increase was proposed for community colleges, despite being the largest provider of postsecondary education in the Commonwealth and a sector that plays a significant role in the Commonwealth’s education and workforce development systems,” said Elizabeth Bolden, president & CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. “In 2017-2018, Pennsylvania community colleges trained more than 312,000 students in academic, career and technical programs and are well-positioned to grow these programs as demand for training increases – but the colleges need funding to make it happen.”

Gov. Wolf indicated that Pennsylvania needs to address the skills gap to ensure that Pennsylvania has a well-trained workforce. He established a goal of 60 percent of Pennsylvania residents having some form of postsecondary education by 2025. Bolden urged Gov. Wolf and policymakers to leverage the experience and expertise of community colleges in meeting these goals.

Pennsylvania community colleges offer high-quality education and workforce programs aligned with areas of critical workforce needs across the Commonwealth. The 14 colleges regularly consult with business partners – such as Shell in western Pennsylvania, Greiner Packaging in eastern Pennsylvania and AMES Reese in central Pennsylvania – to develop programs to meet state and local workforce needs, while fueling Pennsylvania’s economic recovery. The colleges also educate the Commonwealth’s firefighters, healthcare workers, welders and truck drivers, as well as offering much needed training in other in-demand fields.

“Pennsylvania community colleges are ready to assist individuals who want to improve their lives by earning a certificate, enrolling in technical training or preparing for further education,” said Bolden. “The colleges are committed to increasing access to quality, affordable higher education in the Commonwealth. We hope the General Assembly will support us in this mission by increasing funding for community colleges.”

2019 Community College Operating Appropriation vs. Inflation Rate

Website Request for Proposal

Website Revision Request for Proposal
January 28, 2019

The Commission’s current website ( was developed by a Pennsylvania-based firm using the WordPress content management system. The Commission is exploring a reskin the website homepage, updated site functionality and the creation of a call to action.

Objectives, project specifications, scope of work, deliverables and more are included in the full Website Revision Request for Proposal PDF.

Written proposals should be returned to Carolyn Simpson, Director of Communications, no later than Monday, February 11 at 5:00 p.m. A committee consisting of members from the Commission and member colleges will evaluate RFP submissions. Following the review of these written proposals, the Commission will select three developers to conduct capabilities presentations in early March.

Please Note: The Commission will not return any proposals it receives and will not reimburse applicants for any costs they incur in developing their proposals. Also, responding to this RFP shall not enhance any applicant’s chances of receiving future work from the Commission or the colleges. Similarly, not responding to this RFP shall not be a detriment to a vendor when competing for future work.

Statement on PA State System of Higher Education Chancellor

“Each year, nearly 8,000 community college students across the Commonwealth transfer to a state system university to continue their education, so it is imperative that Pennsylvania has a robust four-year public university system with strong leadership. That’s why we’re pleased that the state system has selected Dan Greenstein to fill the role of Chancellor for the 14 institutions that represent one option for our students to continue their education,” said Elizabeth A. Bolden, President & CEO for the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. “As the largest provider of higher education in the state, we are eager to work together with Chancellor Greenstein and the state system institutions to ensure that all Pennsylvania students have access to high-quality, affordable public postsecondary opportunities.”

Community College Partnerships Offer Opportunities to High School Students

By Margaret Anderson, Promotions Writer at Community College of Allegheny County

Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and Penn Hills School District have partnered to offer high school students an opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school.

The College in High School (CIHS) program offers an alternative to the traditional method of taking the Advanced Placement (AP) exam administered by The College Board. The following CIHS courses are now offered through CCAC at the high school:

  • AP United States History
  • AP European History
  • AP Psychology
  • AP Studio Art

Students who register with CCAC and earn a “C” or better in the course will receive college credit that can be applied toward a CCAC degree program or may be transferred to another college. Penn Hills School District is covering the cost of tuition for successfully completed CIHS courses. Through this partnership, Penn Hills High School students save a considerable amount of money while getting a head start on their college careers.

Additionally, CCAC’s Washington County Center and Trinity High School have established an articulation agreement that enables Trinity students to earn CCAC credit while in high school. CCAC also provides CIHS courses through the following schools:

  • Bethel Park High School
  • Cornerstone Christian Preparatory Academy
  • Gateway High School
  • Urban Pathways 6-12 Charter School

College-bound high school students also have the opportunity to develop advanced technical skills and earn college credit toward an associate degree while still in high school through CCAC Dual Enrollment Academies.

CCAC is committed to expanding its partnerships with school districts, and the appointment of Andrew Johnson to the new position of Executive Director of Community Partnerships and External Affairs will serve to enhance these working relationships.