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At Last It Could Be Here

A community college in Albany—an idea whose time has come?

by Erin Pihlaja on May 3, 2012


“The hardest thing to do at a community college is cheat on a test, because the only people you can cheat off of also go to a community college,” jokes comedian Tommy Johnagin. He’s not the only voice on television to poke fun at community colleges. NBC currently airs the half-hour comedy Community, which highlights the happenings of a group of unlikely friends who study and hang out at the community college where they are enrolled. The band of misfits are entertaining and lovable, but the show relies heavily on the joke that community college is a holding cell, or an intellectual limbo, for slackers and those who have lost their way.

In reality, community colleges play a very important role in our educational system. According to the American Association of Community Colleges’ website, “Community colleges are a vital part of the postsecondary education delivery system. They serve almost half of the undergraduate students in the United States, providing open access to postsecondary education, preparing students for transfer to 4-year institutions, providing workforce development and skills training, and offering noncredit programs ranging from English as a second language to skills retraining to community enrichment programs or cultural activities.”

“There is definitely a benefit to community colleges, in terms of educating the immediate population. In this country we don’t have a system where everyone gets to go to a university,” says Ellen Schuler Mauk, an English professor at Suffolk Community College on Long Island.

Mauk is also on the New York State United Teachers board of directors representing community colleges in the state. “Today community colleges are even more critically important,” she says. In a world where technology is constantly changing, Mauk recognizes that it takes more than a high-school diploma to keep up. “Technology is developing so rapidly you have to have people who are lifelong learners, not just because they love learning but because they have to continue learning to compete.”

These ideas have been echoed as high up as the White House. “We know, for example, that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree are going to grow twice as fast as jobs that don’t require college. We will not fill those jobs—or keep those jobs on our shores—without community colleges,” said President Barack Obama (who visited Hudson Valley Community College early in his term) in the White House Summit on Community Colleges Report, released in June 2011. This past February, Obama raised the stakes even higher when he proposed the $8 billion Community College to Career Fund, with the purpose of training 2 million workers for jobs in industries that currently are in need of employees with specialized skill sets.

In the Capital Region, there are several well-regarded community colleges that serve populations in and around counties like Rensselaer, Schenectady, Columbia, and Warren. But there is a conspicuous absence of a community college in the region’s largest county, Albany. And given the increasing need for the kind of educational opportunities these schools provide, and the fact that many people who live in Albany County would benefit from easier geographical access, some people believe that the time for a community college located in the city of Albany has come.

When Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy gave his State of the County address in March, he presented information that some may have found surprising or even shocking. “Did you know that the taxpayers of Albany County are responsible for community college tuition to the tune of almost 11 million dollars . . . about 9 million of which goes to Hudson Valley Community College alone for our students?” McCoy said in his address. “The Rensselaer County Legislature has capped what it pays Hudson Valley at 3.2 million dollars. I’ve met with HVCC and they’ve told me they will not give us a break in our payments. We need to partner with other community colleges.”

McCoy’s address raised some interesting questions. Is the community-college status quo in jeopardy for Albany County residents? Would a community college in Albany relieve any of its financial woes?

“When community colleges were first set up in New York state, local counties were given the opportunity to establish a community college,” Mauk explains. “If they chose not to do that, when their residents attended community colleges in another area, they chose to put money toward the county where the community college was in.” That money, referred to as “chargebacks,” is what is adding up to the millions of dollars that is increasingly straining the Albany County budget.

When McCoy’s office looked at the operating budget for Albany County, the chargebacks came under scrutiny. “It’s a wonderful idea, except as you can see we’re already operating in the red,” says Mary Rozak, spokeswoman for Albany County. “Times have changed. We want everyone to have an opportunity to go to college—but should it be on the backs of taxpayers, and at what rate?”

“I’ve met with SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher to talk about the formula to determine what the county pays,” McCoy said in the State of the County. “She was shocked and is willing to discuss some options. I am pursuing discussions with Schenectady County Community College and will also consider talking with my colleagues about regionalization of community colleges or creating Albany County Community College. We will explore every option.”

A task force was set up to analyze the state of affairs in Albany and issued a report to McCoy’s office on March 8, detailing its recommendations. In regards to fiscal policy and planning, it said, “The County should communicate with the other regional counties to assure that our students are provided the best education and the County taxpayers are treated fairly compared to the host counties. The current agreement between Albany County and Hudson Valley Community College places a disproportionate financial burden on Albany relative to Rensselaer County and has so for a number of years. Given the disparate financial commitment and lack of county representation on the Board of Trustees, it behooves the County to explore partnerships with surrounding community colleges as well as approaching SUNY to determine the feasibility of creating a community college within the County.”

Dennis Kennedy, executive director of public relations at HVCC, understands the hardships that Albany County is facing but says that the matter is beyond the school’s control.

“It’s important to know that Hudson Valley does not determine the rate at which counties fund the college,” he says. “State Education law does—and has for decades. Albany County’s chargeback rate is based on a growing number of students choosing to enroll at Hudson Valley and a significant decrease in state aid over a period of time,” he says. Which means that with the economy crawling along at a snail’s pace, and enrollment at community colleges growing, that number is likely to keep increasing.

Martin Robinson is an Albany resident who enrolled at HVCC right after high school. When Robinson was choosing a college, he considered where the school was located, what the tuition rates were, and the quality of education it offered.

Martin Robinson, photo by Erin Pihlaja

He accepted a full scholarship to HVCC and was admitted to the honors program. He will graduate this spring with an associate degree in liberal arts. Robinson is very happy with the education he received. “Classes were small. I was able to develop relationships with my professors and I made friends with people in my classes. It was a very personal experience,” he says.

Robinson also is the editor-in-chief of HVCC’s student newspaper, The Hudsonian, an opportunity for which he is grateful.

For Albany residents attending HVCC, commuting can be an issue; Robinson made it work, but it wasn’t easy. To get to school, he walks to the CDTA bus stop at Washington Avenue and Swan Street to pick up the No. 224 bus. From there it is about a 20-minute commute to the Troy campus, about 6.5 miles away. Robinson can catch the bus here on weekdays every half-hour from 6:19 AM until 6:14 PM. The line follows a similar schedule back to Albany, but after 6 PM, it runs only every hour.

“I did take a night class once and it wasn’t the best experience,” he recalls. “If I didn’t get out of class on time I’d miss the bus and have to wait an hour for the next one.” He also has missed classes when the buses weren’t running according to schedule. Calendar holidays that the school doesn’t observe have also posed a problem; on those days, the lines follow a Sunday schedule, making it even more difficult for Robinson to get to the campus on time.

Calley Parks, an Albany resident since 2004, enrolled at HVCC in January 2011 as a returning student. She originally started at Russell Sage College in Troy, but left before completing her degree. After leaving school, she worked for seven years as a body piercer on Lark Street. She thought about school, but became immersed in her life in downtown Albany. “It was easier to ignore my returning back to school when I didn’t have daily exposure to it,” she says.

She liked piercing at first, but one day decided that she wasn’t happy at her job. “I didn’t want to work retail for the rest of my life and was upset that I didn’t finish my education,” she says. She started looking at area schools that offered a technical theater program, her original concentration of study. Most of the schools that did were private colleges with high-priced tuition costs. She finally found a program at HVCC. “HVCC is like a tenth of the tuition at Russell Sage,” Parks says. “When you look at the education, it’s great for the money.”

Parks recently was included in the 2012 edition of Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges, a selection based on a cumulative grade point average, community service, and future potential. “I performed beyond my expectations and surprised myself,” she says. “It’s hard at age 17 or 18 to know what you want to do and how to get it.”

She excelled in academics her second time around; the real struggle was getting to the campus. Parks doesn’t have a driver’s license, so she rode with her brother, who also attends HVCC full-time. “It can be a nightmare some days,” she says. “On a good day, the commute on 787 is around 20 minutes from downtown. But during rush hour, even if there’s no accident on the ramp to 90, and there usually is, traffic grinds to a dead halt.”

She coordinated schedules with her brother so that both of them could make it to their classes. “Last semester there were a couple of days that I had to go in a couple of hours early, before my classes started. Still, I feel worse for kids who take the bus everyday or who ask their parents to bring them in,” she says.

The other option for Albany residents looking to attend a community college nearby can be found 20 miles away in Schenectady. Shannon Kinney enrolled at Schenectady County Community College in 2009 to fulfill some prerequisites for nursing school, and considers herself lucky to have access to a vehicle. Kinney lived in Albany at the time and had a used car to get to and from school. She took the New York State Thruway because she felt it was the easiest and fastest route, although she did have to pay a toll each way. It’s currently 30 cents from Albany to Schenectady, but it adds up, as does the money spent to buy gas. At $4 per gallon, an hour or so of daily commuting can be taxing for anyone, especially a student. Kinney also noticed that the drive took a toll on her vehicle. “It’s disheartening to me, I just got a new car in July. My cars don’t last as long as they did before the commute,” she says.

Shannon Kinney, photo by Erin Pihlaja

When Kinney enrolled at SCCC, she had already earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Albany, but that wasn’t her first experience in higher education. She started out at the Albany College of Pharmacy in 2000 but left in 2002. She took one semester of classes at HVCC that year before continuing to UAlbany and found that semester at community college enlightening. “It was an opportunity to slow down. I finally didn’t feel so totally overwhelmed by all the classes I had to take and I got to take classes that interested me,” she says.

Kinney found employment at GE and IBM with her bachelor’s, but was hired as a contractor and found the situation less than secure, so she decided to use her science background to pursue a career in nursing. After her year at SCCC, she continued to Ellis School of Nursing.

Two months into her first semester, Kinney was offered a full-time position at IBM. She decided to finish the nursing program anyway. “I’m pro-school, but the way I see it, with everything that’s changing, the job market is horrible. These schools are not that expensive and there’s so much you can do with these programs,” she says.

Community colleges offer access to higher education to communities that wouldn’t have access to it otherwise. So, what about options for the people of Albany that don’t have the time or means to Schenectady or Troy, or who work to support families and find it hard to carve out time for the commute? HVCC offers satellite locations throughout the city of Albany where students can take courses, but in order to finish a degree, students eventually have to find their way to the Troy campus.

Empire State College offers a nontraditional approach to continued education with “guided independent study and coursework onsite, online or a combination of both,” according to David Henahan, Director of Communications at SUNY Empire State College. Students take courses online but also have the option of meeting with faculty and other students in seminar-type settings. While it offers the flexibility needed for some adult learners, this formula isn’t going to be a fit for everyone.

Harris Oberlander, chief executive officer of Trinity Alliance in Albany, is working on another possible solution. Trinity Alliance is a progressive social action network whose mission statement states, “Our agency is dedicated to improving the neighborhood as a setting for family life, contributing to health and well-being, and promoting education and employment as a means of self-development.”

Harris Oberlander, photo by Erin Pihlaja

“What we’re proposing is certainly something that’s never been pronounced in the Capital Region, which is that the end goal, from a social standpoint, is to raise the median income in the city of Albany,” Oberlander says. “The way to do that is to provide workforce development—people getting ready for better jobs.”

In April 2011, Trinity and The Albany Housing Authority secured a $5 million grant to develop the Albany Capital South Campus Center just east of Lincoln Park in the South End. The 12,200-square-foot facility will include classrooms, a greenhouse, a child-care facility, a state-of-the-art kitchen, and a computer lab. Trinity’s website states, “The Campus Center will be a hub of activity, hosting training, education and community functions, while incorporating child care and youth programming for the purpose of stabilizing disadvantaged families today and positioning them for the employment opportunities of tomorrow.”

The center will provide training programs along with college level courses. “We had 12 or 13 partners at the time, we’re now up to about 50 or 60. The plan invokes HVCC, SCCC, Maria College, UAlbany, and a whole host of grassroots organizations and providers that will help under gird the students that go here,” Oberlander says.

The Albany Capital South Campus Center project is very much in its initial stages. The partners who intend to occupy the space have met with architects to plan the details of the physical location, but the curriculum is still being discussed. One plan in the works would allow a particular space to be used by more than one partner. “Senior Services of Albany has a 48-employee Meals on Wheels program which will build an ultra-modern kitchen,” Oberlander says. “When they are done preparing their meals, SCCC will move in there and teach culinary arts in the afternoon. The $7.25-an-hour short-order cook from Albany might train here, get a degree and who knows? Maybe go on to open a restaurant, go to work as a $30,000-a-year chef, or go on to the Culinary Institute of America.”

He is reaching out to industry as well as local educational institutions. “I’ve met with Nanotech, and we’re in the process of signing a memorandum of understanding which will bring those companies; Intel, IBM and so on, into that building to teach as well,” he says.

Oberlander hopes that the partners can work together and figure out a way to share credits between their programs for students pursuing an associate or bachelor’s degree. While it would be ideal for the Albany South Campus Center to provide all of the curriculum needed for those degrees in one place, those details haven’t been worked out yet.

The job market is getting more and more competitive while at the same time state budget cuts, especially to education funding, are constantly in the news. As McCoy’s office made clear, Albany County is feeling the pressure to balance taxpayer burden against the services it provides to its residents. At this point, no one office or organization seems to have the perfect solution to the community-college puzzle in Albany County. But many believe that the residents here need and deserve one.