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After HACC dropped some arts classes, community rallied to save them

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When Harrisburg Area Community College released its budget for the 2018-19 school year in early April, officials cited declining enrollment and federal financial aid eligibility updates as two factors in some of the cost-cutting measures outlined in the budget.

But when some students noticed that those measures wiped a number of arts classes from the fall 2018 course schedule, they took to social media to rally around the value of HACC’s arts programming for the region.

#SaveHACCArts online petition garnered over 23,500 signatures in the past month, highlighting the affordability, accessibility and economic and cultural impact of the classes for local artists and asking HACC administrators to recognize these values by re-listing the classes.

On April 17, after a couple administrative meetings with affected students, HACC President John J. “Ski” Sygielski did just that, announcing that five of the six omitted art electives had been added back to the fall 2018 course schedule.

Those classes included advanced-level ceramics and glass-blowing.

"We are here to meet the needs of the community, and what we heard very clearly from students is that this a need that we would like to be able to meet," said Jennie Baar, dean of academic affairs at HACC’s main campus in Harrisburg. Baar said that although a number of the once-threatened classes are not part of degree programs, many students rely on them for professional development as working artists.

Arts in the economy

Norah Johnson, director of new projects and capabilities for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, affirmed HACC’s role in developing local artists.

"I think that for any of us, I know it sounds cheesy, learning is a continual process, particularly when it’s the arts, in terms of building your skills and talents. I think that HACC is well known in this area for providing high quality classes whether they’re enrolled as full-time students, have a full-time job, or several part-time jobs," Johnson said.

To drive home the necessity of supporting working artists, Johnson cited the economic impact of arts and cultural organizations as measured by a study from Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy nonprofit. The study said that nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and their audiences supported 100,114 full-time-equivalent jobs in Pennsylvania and generated $2.2 billion in income for state residents in FY 2015.

Meg Caruso in her studio
Meg Caruso in her studio - ()

One local artist who credits HACC for spurring her art career is Meg Caruso. Caruso, creative director for TheBurg magazine, was disappointed and frustrated when she learned about the administration’s decision not to include some advanced art classes in the fall 2018 schedule. 

Having practiced art in high school at Cumberland Valley but unsure of what her career interests were when she graduated in 2002, Caruso enrolled in ceramics, 2-D and 3-D design, and drawing and painting classes at HACC.

When one professor, Jim Lard, taught Caruso design theory and psychology in an advanced ceramics class, her eyes were opened to the world of graphic design.

After two years of classes at HACC, she went on to graduate from the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design with a bachelor of fine arts degree and has since worked as an artist in Central Pennsylvania. Along with her work for TheBurg, Caruso does freelance graphic designing and runs Sprocket Mural Works, a mural organization that has commissioned over 35 murals in the region and pays the independent artists who make them.

One of Caruso's pieces, a ceramic flask
One of Caruso's pieces, a ceramic flask - ()

Caruso has also recently taken up pottery again, enrolling in a HACC ceramics class in 2015 that she hadn’t previously taken. She sells her pieces in a studio at The Millworks in Harrisburg and at Meeka Fine Jewelry and Sweet 504 in Camp Hill.

Caruso attended meetings with current HACC students who worked with the school administration to restore the classes missing from the fall 2018 schedule. She appreciates that HACC officials listened to students and thinks the institution, its students and the region will be better off for it.

"I’m so glad they put the classes back on the schedule," Caruso said.

Cost-effectiveness

Baar cited an improving economy for HACC’s declining enrollment over the past few years, as jobs become more stable and fewer people enroll in job-retraining programs.

Enrollment is up, however, in programs for high-demand career fields like pre-health professions, hospitality and tourism management, and computer information security. Plus, HACC serves a wide range of educational needs for the region, from preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions to offering programs for continuing education and workforce development.

With all of these factors in mind, HACC officials are regularly analyzing the success and relevance of the school’s courses, including its arts electives, Baar said. How often and when courses are offered are altered accordingly. Baar also emphasized that the de-listed arts classes were not permanently eliminated when the fall 2018 schedule was released; they were under consideration, she said.

"Our goal at HACC overall is to meet the needs of the community while balancing financial stability for the institution," Baar said.

HACC, along with Pennsylvania’s 13 other community colleges, receives state funding that contributes to revenue from student tuition, sponsorships from 22 local school districts and other sources. For the 2018-19 school year, HACC is set to receive over $32 million of its $142.6 million in total projected revenue from the commonwealth.

Caruso understands that arts classes cost colleges more to offer than a math or English class, with expenses like specialized classroom space and equipment and fewer people per class. But while non-degree electives like the threatened arts classes aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, many students enrolled in them pay out of pocket anyway, Caruso said.

"When you’re young and unsure what you want to study in terms of your career, it can be a ridiculously huge waste of time to go away to a state school. It’s really affordable for people to take their time and find their way," Caruso said.

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Becca Oken-Tatum

Becca Oken-Tatum

Becca Oken-Tatum is the web editor for the Central Penn Business Journal. She also coordinates and writes for CPBJ's monthly Young Professionals e-newsletter. Email her questions, comments and tips at btatum@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter at @becca0t.

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