In 2008, President Obama sounded the alarm that community colleges would be the key to regenerating our economy. In an interview with the Wausau Daily Herald, he said “In a moment when people are finding it harder and harder to get ahead, it’s time to call upon our community colleges once again.”
Now in 2012, the President answered his own call by including in his 2013 budget proposal request, a proposal to invest $8 billion in community colleges to help them train workers in high-growth industries.
While it may sound promising to hear of so much support from the federal level, unfortunately we are not seeing as much of a trickle-down effect at the state level. As cash-strapped states around the country are forced to tighten their belts, community colleges are not quite feeling the same kind of love.
In Pennsylvania, under the direction of Governor Corbett, community colleges have been forced to brace themselves for a nearly 10% reduction in funding from the state.
Compounding the problem, the counties and local school districts are dealing with the challenge of upholding their financial obligations to their local community colleges, in the midst of trying to balance their own budgets. For community colleges that receive partial funding from local school districts, the situation has resulted in a bitter tug-of-war with some school districts seeking to either significantly decrease their contributions, or eliminate them altogether.
This leaves these institutions with difficult choices to make on how to make up the difference, which often leads to higher tuition rates or cuts in important services to students. Furthermore, if community colleges start to trend in losing the financial support of their school districts and counties, they risk being non-compliant with Pennsylvania state law which requires all community colleges to have a local funding source in order to exist as a higher education institution.
We should be concerned about this for three reasons.
1. It directly impacts college access.
Currently our 14 community colleges make higher education affordable and accessible to PA residents throughout the 67 counties. Their reach is incredible with one out of every five undergraduate students attending one of these institutions. If even one of these colleges would cease to exist, it would detrimentally impact an entire community of residents who may see community college as their only avenue to pursue higher education.
2. It directly impacts local workforce development.
Business communities often rely on community colleges to provide them with trained workers such as highly-skilled health care professionals and a host of other types of technicians. Not to mention they also provide a slew of short term continuing education opportunities to various industries that require on-going education of their workforce.
3. It directly impacts preparation of college-ready students.
It is no secret that community colleges shoulder much of the responsibility when it comes to remedial education. At some institutions, as much as 60-70% of entering freshmen are enrolled in at least one developmental course. Often times, four-year schools will refer these students to enroll at their local community college to complete developmental work before joining their ranks. With smaller class sizes and comprehensive academic support services, community colleges play a pivotal role in equipping under-prepared students with the tools they need to be successful at the four-year level.
Affectionately coined as the “Ellis Islands of higher education”, it would be remiss to deny the need for these institutions to exist, especially now when the need for skilled laborers is so immediate. The average age of today’s college student is rising. Many do not have the time, money, or lifestyle to pursue the traditional four-year experience.They need quality, affordable and flexible educational options. Community colleges meet this need.
These institutions embody the very essence of college access, and tirelessly work to provide thousands of students in Pennsylvania with a solid foundation to build toward their future. Don’t they deserve support?
For more information on community colleges in PA, visit www.pacommunitycolleges.org. And don’t forget to support all of our local colleges across the state at PACAC’s annual College Access Forum!
This article will be printed in the summer edition of the Pacer, quarterly newsletter of the Pennsylvania Association for College Admissions Counseling.