Seed corn

Community colleges are crucial to job growth, and legislative budget-cutters had best be careful.

February 8, 2011 

North Carolina's splendid community college system is the third largest in the United States, and in 2008-09 enrolled 850,000 people in classes. It is the key to job training, and to retraining, which is what many of those new students, having lost jobs, are doing. The system was even singled out (via Forsyth Tech) in President Obama's recent State of the Union address.

But there is a fear that with the state facing a $3.7 billion budget shortfall, the knife will fall and fall hard on the system, which has an open-door admissions policy and which has for years been putting a bigger teaching load on instructors. The community colleges, though they can make an excellent case for being protected from the largest budget cuts, generally lack the lobbying and political clout of schools in the University of North Carolina system.

To slice and dice the 58 community colleges would be akin to the General Assembly cutting off its nose to spite its face. If a goal of government in these hard times of high unemployment is to put people back to work, then the community colleges can lead the way toward that goal.

It's obvious that the schools will have to raise tuition, though it still will be a bargain considering what the colleges provide. But to insist on substantial budget cuts could well do more long-term harm than short-term good.

Generating jobs

Legislators can't preach job creation on one hand and take away important pathways to job creation on the other. One of the major points the state uses to recruit new, higher-paying industry is that if businesses need a workforce skilled in a certain process or technology, community colleges can quickly set up a training program specific to that need. The colleges also have become for many students a cost-efficient and accessible path of entry into university programs.

Though the colleges are spread throughout the state, and often are centers for the arts and a variety of activities for cities and towns wherever they are, they're even more prevalent than the number of individual campuses would indicate. They have satellites and other educational centers. In all there are 162 places where community colleges offer courses, an average of more than one and a half sites per county. This represents outreach and then some.

More with even less?

In these tough times, the colleges have reached even more people. In the last three years, the system has added 50,000 full-time students, a 25 percent increase. And yet, per-student funding from the state has dropped by 12 percent. That doesn't compute, and yet the colleges have kept serving more people on less money because the need for job training and economical higher education options demands it.

Cut that per-student figure another 10 percent, which could happen, and eventually community colleges will hit a wall, their heroic efforts thus far notwithstanding.

Funding for enrollment growth this year will need to be $34 million. The General Assembly should deliver that. It's crucial. And if legislators are looking at priorities with an eye toward which decisions will affect the most people, or constituents, they might keep that 850,000 number in mind.

The state's community college system is a jewel, one that draws the admiration of other states and educators nationwide. To neglect it by failing to fund it adequately puts that reputation at risk and accreditation along with it. There need to be champions in the legislature who will not let that happen.

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