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2011 August 21 - 12:00 am

POV: For Colleges and Students, New Year Means Old Balancing Act

Paul Bradley

Julie, a friend at the gym where I huff and puff a few days a week has had a lot on her plate lately.

It was just a few weeks ago that her mother passed away after a long illness.

Days after returning from the funeral in Florida, she was stalking the aisles at Target, explaining the nuances of mattress pads and pillow cases to her eldest son, who is off to college at Virginia Commonwealth University. Next on the agenda: teaching him how to do laundry.

And in perhaps the biggest transition of all, she is busy buying books and supplies of her own. She’s going back to college, preparing for her first semester at Northern Virginia Community College. After spending a couple of years on a waiting list, she finally secured a spot in the college’s massage therapy program. She turned to the college after learning that her undergraduate degree is psychology might help in dealing with transition and loss, but doesn’t count for much in a lousy economy, especially for someone who has been away from the workplace for years raising a family.

In many ways, my friend is typical of many of the community college students who are returning to class for the 2011-12 academic year, or going to college for the very first time. She’s full of eager anticipation, yet nervous about what awaits her. She is aghast at the cost of textbooks, but knows they’ll be valuable additions to her library now and in the future. She’s bummed that the labs she got are so early in the morning, but ready to start the juggling act that characterizes students who must balance responsibilities of life and school. Two years from now, she figures, she’ll be going back to work.

As the new academic year begins, community colleges around the country are striking a balancing act of their own.

The lagging economy has served to accelerate a trend that has been under way for a decade. Community colleges today not only educate recent high school graduates, but also adults whose skills don’t give them the ability to capitalize on new job opportunities. There are now more than 8 million students enrolled in U.S. community colleges, about half of all college students in America. They are laid off workers, traditional students, employees who need more training, Baby Boomers seeking to change careers.

The fact that community colleges have been so closely linked to the economic recovery represents a sea change and gives community college educators hope that their moment has arrived. But the reality falls far short of the rhetoric. Even as President Obama calls on community colleges to produce 5 million more graduates by year 2020, the tools for them to do so are slipping away.

Lawmakers have been busy disinvesting in community colleges and higher education, slashing budgets due to the lingering effects of the recession. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 43 states have cut funding to higher education in the current fiscal year. The problem, of course, is that even as funding for higher education has diminished, the demand has increased.

The praise and attention won’t mean much if community colleges have to shut their doors to the people who depend on them.

The implications are severe, and not only for the students who won’t be able to get that needed class or graduate on time, but also for college athletes, whose dreams have died as colleges are forced to choose between funding the classroom or the playing field.

In a letter to the Orange County Register, Jerry Patterson, president of the Coast Community College District Board of Trustees, bemoaned the loss of $24 million in state funding. His words sum up the predicament facing community colleges from coast to coast.

“There are no soft cuts left,” he wrote. “From here on it will be reductions in the quality of education, loss of vital resources and reduction of faculty and staff. It will mean fewer classes available, and with more students not being able to meet their scholastic and professional goals, time delays for those who remain will not meet our work force demands for viable economic growth and student success.”

The long-term implications are more daunting still. The students of today are the underpinning of tomorrow’s economy. Workers without an education will be trapped in minimum skill, minimum wage jobs, earning barely enough to get by. They won’t buy goods and services or contribute to the country’s consumer economy. They won’t pay into a tax system that provides for the care of the elderly and disabled and funding for public schools.

To their credit, community colleges are not shrinking from the challenge. Whether it’s late-night classes or more distance learning, colleges are figuring out ways to do their job against long odds. Colleges aren’t throwing up their hands. They are redoubling their efforts.

As the 2011-12 academic years starts, Community College Week remains committed to chronicling the challenges and triumphs of community colleges. We’ll also keep an eye on students like my friend as she navigates her way. After all, she sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

May the light at the end of your own tunnel be nothing but a bright new academic year.

IT'S YOUR TURN!  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:What are your major aspirations for the 2011-12 academic year?
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