JOHNSTOWN - From the president's office at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College in Richland Township, Walter Asonevich thinks about Blair County.
He said he thinks about an economy that can be boosted and a segment of the population who is struggling but could be trained for local jobs or prepared for the rigors of a four-year Penn State Altoona education, if a Penn Highlands campus is built in Altoona.
Asonevich plans to open a Penn Highlands campus in Altoona in the fall of 2013.
"We are hiring a director for the campus in January to begin recruiting students," he said.
But the Penn Highlands Board of Trustees is still shopping for a location in Altoona.
"We will start small," Asonevich said.
But Asonevich believes an Altoona campus can grow to rival the size of Penn Highlands' main campus in Richland.
"The campus there in Blair can be as large as the one here in Richland [the largest of the college's four campuses including Ebensburg, Somerset and Huntingdon]," Asonevich said.
Penn Highlands has the highest degree completion rate among two-year colleges in Pennsylvania, according to data collected this year by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Many students choose not to attain a degree from the sprawling Richland Township campus, but transfer across the street to the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown to attain a four-year degree.
"Pitt-Johnstown is adding new buildings and new departments and we are growing right beside them," Asonevich said.
"In Blair right now, you got a great four-year college in Penn State Altoona, but community college is open enrollment and we do train for the local level. We help in preparing unemployed and can raise the college-going rate in Blair County," he said.
Penn State Altoona officials are optimistic that a Penn Highlands campus in Blair County will increase the college-going population.
"Penn Highlands coming to Blair County will help Penn State Altoona by providing us with a steady stream of students who may have an interest in furthering their educations and becoming juniors and seniors in our many excellent four-year degree programs," Penn State Altoona spokeswoman Shari Routch said.
UPJ spokesman Bob Knipple said 20 percent of transfer students to Pitt-Johnstown are from Penn Highlands.
"Our mutual successes also yield great benefits for the community at large, especially when you consider the economic impact on our region," Knipple said.
The economic contribution of Penn Highlands includes benefits of improved health and reduced welfare, unemployment, and crime, "saving the public some $570,700 per year each year that students are in the workforce," states findings of a study conducted by Economic Modeling Specialists Inc.
The data were compiled the same year the current Richland campus was established in 2008-09.
Penn Highlands is a young community college, and the Richland Township campus, with 1,400 students, experienced enrollment growth of about 2 percent this year while matured community colleges nationwide experience flat or decreased enrollment, Asonevich said.
But despite its growth, state funding for Penn Highlands is shrinking.
In 2007, the state supplied $2,100 per full-time student, Asonevich said.
"With that funding down to $1,422 [per student], we've experienced a $700 drop in the state to fund one student going through college," he said.
Meanwhile, enrollment increased by 35 percent in the past five years, Asonevich said. There are 1,730 full-time students enrolled at Penn Highlands programs, including high school dual enrollment students who earn college credits and associate degrees while in high school.
About 50 Blair County students pay a regional tuition rate and drive to Penn Highlands' Ebensburg campus, Asonevich said.
"I don't want people to think that we are flush with money," he said. "Our state allocation is so low. We have to pay the bills. As long as the state is not recognizing our growth, I'm forced to raise tuition."
But the college fended off tuition increases this year, and instead decreased tuition because Gov. Tom Corbett's 4 percent proposed cut to the college's state allocation, $102,000, was restored by the Legislature.
"We will use part of that restored money to hire secretaries, and we still had a little left to knock off dollars to tuition," Asonevich said.
In January, tuition for students of Cambria County paying in-county tuition to Richland or Ebensburg campuses will see a $2 decrease per credit. For example, a full-time student taking 15 credits worth of classes for two semesters will save $60 that year.
Cambria County student tuition will be $96 per credit down from $97 per credit. Activity fees will be cut down to $47 per credit from $48 per credit.
Regional tuition for students commuting to a Penn Highlands from Blair, Somerset, Huntingdon, Bedford and Fulton and Clearfield counties, the rate will decrease in January by $3.
Regional student tuition will be $173 per credit down from $175. And $1 will be subtracted from the $48 activity fee per credit, saving a full-time student taking 15 credits $90 on tuition and fees.
A discount program to help students unprepared for college offers remedial education in the summer for less than half the cost per credit.
"We risk losing money on summer programs but we believe it will be good for the economy, students will be successful and retained longer - moving toward degree completion," Asonevich said.
Of Blair County's 88,254 people age 25 or older estimated by the American Community Survey in 2010, there were 9,575 people estimated to have earned a bachelor's degree and 6,562 who have earned an associate degree. About 13,750 people had some college experience, but no degree; they include college students in the process of earning their degree.
Asonevich plans to increase those numbers in Blair County.
"We'll directly be creating jobs in Blair County by hiring more employees," Asonevich said. "But also with students graduating and paying taxes, it all mushrooms out."
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.