POV: Community Colleges Stand Ready To Aid Economic Recovery, but Need Government Help
It is fitting that President Obama visited Elkhart, Ind., to promote his economic stimulus plan, for that city typifies the heartland’s economic dislocation, as well as being a place where people are embracing new solutions.
President Obama declared that “the single most important factor in whether or not companies are going to continue to locate here in Elkhart and around the country is, ‘What are we doing about education?’ Because the quality of the workforce is probably what most companies are going to pay attention to over time.”
He’s right. That’s why Ivy Tech Community College is helping to rebuild Indiana’s proud workforce through career and technical education opportunities.
But we can’t do it alone. Smart spending on community colleges must be part of any economic recovery plan.
In the meantime, what are we doing? In the Elkhart area, we interviewed more than 1,000 people affected by layoffs. We have already enrolled more than 500 of those dislocated workers in courses that provide new skills.
The career and technical education offered at our community colleges represents a flexible, tailored solution to an urgent need. Our rapid response team talked with business leadership in the region, designed curriculum that meets the needs of these employers and found space in which to begin conducting classes in just a few months.
The working partnership between employers and educators is no surprise to those who understand the value of such synergy. The challenge for the colleges and elected officials is to respond to the new economic realities responsibly, practically and imaginatively.
Even before the recession took hold, two-year colleges were educating more than one-third of all U.S. students pursuing a higher education. Today more than 6.5 million students across the country are enrolled in community colleges.
Those numbers will continue to climb. It is not just young people avoiding the higher tuitions of four-year colleges and laid-off workers looking for new job skills. It is also baby boomers who have reached or are fast approaching retirement age who have been flocking to community colleges, some because they actively seek a second or third career.
But everyone involved — faculty, administrators and public officials — needs to think carefully about how to achieve several important, practical goals:
Community colleges will need enough teachers and classrooms to handle the greater numbers of students — and up-to-date equipment on which to to train them.
Support programs must be created to help students — most of whom juggle incredibly demanding schedules of work, study and family — to stay in school and get the most from their classes.
Training must be geared to the real world so graduates enter the workplace with the skills employers demand.
Class schedules should be tailored to meet the widely varying needs of new students, especially laid-off workers and baby boomers.
A substantial portion of the economic stimulus package that President Obama and Congress agreed upon is designed to cushion state school systems from drastic budget cuts. That is a wise investment.
The president noted that his original stimulus package included “money to revamp our community colleges, which are a tremendous bridge for people who need more training to get these new jobs of the future.”
I share his disappointment that the Senate version of the package actually cut much of the money for education, as did the compromise bill that the president signed into law.
Every student needs to be ready to enter the workplace with the skills employers want. But what is the job future of the 21st century, and how can community colleges make sure they get it right? The answers will evolve over time and will require constant adjustments. We already know that health care and environmental technology will loom large in coming decades.
One of those 500 workers now enrolled at Ivy Tech is a 45-year-old mother of four.
After losing her job, she got a $6,000 state grant to enroll in our system and learn how to make artificial hips and knees for the booming orthopedic industry in neighboring Warsaw. There is a single dad who has seen his annual income cut in half after losing a job he had for decades. He is now dedicated to redefining himself through an education at Ivy Tech.
America is entering a new age, and community colleges will play a big part in the transformation.
But state and federal governments must help.
We are pleased that the final version of the economic stimulus package includes critically needed funding for higher education. Moving forward, we urge lawmakers to study the success stories in higher education, particularly at the community college level, and to support funding for expanding course offerings that will keep America working and producing.
Thomas J.Snyder is President of Ivy Tech Community College