NANTICOKE — Promises of technology upgrades, a new welding program, longer cafeteria hours, improved security and, yes, a looming tuition hike were all part of Luzerne County Community College President Thomas Leary’s remarks during an open forum with students Thursday.
But the bulk of his time at the podium was used to get feedback from the audience.
During nearly an hour of such feedback from a crowd of 40 or so people, the tuition hike never came up. Leary mentioned it himself, explaining as he has since the increase came up at a board of trustees meeting Tuesday that it is necessary thanks to a loss four years ago of $1.2 million annually in money coming from the state, followed by flat-lined state subsidies each succeeding year.
“As a result, we’ve lost $5 million in the last four years,” Leary said. “I think it is most regrettable that in a society that is supposed to be the leaders of the world … that the commitment that was made many years ago to students at community colleges that we would continue to fund the colleges to maintain a low cost, I think it’s regrettable that that’s not being followed through by the state of Pennsylvania.”
Leary has generally avoided putting a figure on the tuition increase, insisting numbers are still being crunched, but did concede that “it’s going to increase at least as much as last year — at least — and maybe more.” Tuition rose $14, from $96 in 2012-13 to $110 in 2013-14.
But prior to that news Leary offered a litany of improvements in the coming year, much of it courtesy of up to $900,000 the state has approved for capital projects. That money will help pay for:
• Technology upgrades to speed up computer networks on campus, and replacement of one-quarter of existing machines in computer labs.
• New desks in many classrooms, and new furniture in the downstairs lounge of the student center. “A few weeks ago I sat in one of those chairs and went down to the floor,” Leary said. “I realized we need new furniture.”
• Enhanced security, which Leary noted is even more important in the wake of a threat last month that shut the campus down for two days. The school will have direct emergency connections to campus security offices in the classrooms and outside buildings.
• New equipment for the automotive technology and communications arts programs, including creation of a welding program.
Leary then asked for input from the students and got an earful of questions and ideas for improvements. One person noted the nursing program gets “thousands” of applicants but only accepts a hundred or so. Leary said about 1,700 apply but only 125 can be accepted because there aren’t enough openings in area hospitals to provide the practical training the school includes in the program.
Several asked about the fate of “Building 11” on campus, currently labeled as the facility office and classroom building. Leary said it is in major need of repairs and the school is looking for money. Options mentioned included refurbishing it or replacing it with a theater — something Leary said several times he would like to see on campus — or razing it to create a green space, something one student pointed out would be less useful on a campus where most of the students are present during winter, not summer.
One student suggested a swimming pool, but Leary said liability insurance made that cost-prohibitive.
Students also asked about several offices vacated in Building 7 when the English Department was moved. The most common recommendation was to create study spaces for students between classes.
One adult pointed out that those taking evening classes pay the same amount as day students but don’t get the same services, most notably cafeteria access. Leary said the cafeteria closes at 2 p.m., but “I’m going to ask them to stay open until 4 this fall.”
Another student said the cafeteria does not accept “food stamps,” and Leary promised “Unless there is something that prohibits it, we will accept food stamps.”
Leary closed with comments on the tuition increase, but after conceding the hike is inevitable he promised whenever possible to extend payment deadlines if students found themselves struggling to cover the cost.
“We’re not going to deny anyone a college education because you don’t have the money in your pocket,” he said.