Educators Praise Community College Funding Initiative

By Beacon Staff

President Barack Obama’s announcement of a $12-billion initiative boosting funding for two-year education programs was a welcome one at Flathead Valley Community College.

“The amount indicates that President Obama and his administration recognize what an important role community colleges can play in the economic recovery,” Kathy Hughes, FVCC’s vice president of instruction, said. “This investment is significant and definitely sends the right message.”

Speaking at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., last week, Obama framed his 10-year American Graduation Initiative as key to stemming the steadily increasing rate of unemployment in the U.S., by retraining workers who have lost their jobs and preparing the U.S. workforce to compete in a global economy.

“In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience,” Obama said. “We will not fill those jobs, or even keep those jobs here in America, without the training offered by community colleges.”

Obama’s plan would fund infrastructure improvements, develop online courses, and allocate roughly $9 billion toward programs that promote enrollment at community colleges, but also help students complete a degree program. The goal, Obama said, is to help an additional 5 million Americans earn certificates or degrees by 2020.

Congress must appropriate the funds for the proposal, which would be paid for by separate legislation replacing a subsidized student loan program with loans issued directly through the Education Department – a switch that could generate savings estimated at around $87 billion over the next decade.

It won’t be clear how FVCC can take advantage of the initiative until more details emerge on how the funding is structured, Hughes said, but the college is eager to develop long term improvements, like online coursework, as well as pressing needs, like expanding programs for the unemployed in the valley.

“There’s a role for really looking at the new economy and jobs of the future, as well as some of the things that our dislocated workers are working on immediately,” she added.

And while two-year schools might be able address a community’s specific employment needs more quickly, these institutions offer another benefit that only helps the prospective student in a tough economy: They’re less expensive. That probably accounts for part of the reason enrollment at two-year schools is expanding so dramatically.

But in Montana, enrollment in two-year schools continues to lag behind the national average, according to Mary Sheehy Moe, the state’s deputy commissioner for two-year education. In the U.S., 47 percent of all college students attend two-year institutions, she said, while in Montana, only 24 percent of college students are at two-year schools.

There are other corollary benefits of community colleges that make them a more cost-effective option, like letting recent high school graduates remain at home for another year or two, or allowing enrolled parents cheaper child-care options. But for whatever reason, Moe does not see enough Montanans seriously considering community colleges and colleges of technology.

“People haven’t recognized that choosing that particular portal into higher education is much more affordable and also produces good jobs and really successful transfers,” Moe added. “I don’t think Montanans in all those communities are really aware and confident they can get just as good of an education.”

While four-year colleges receive vastly more federal funding per student than two-year schools, Moe praised the Montana Legislature for being, “very supportive” of these institutions across the state, particularly when it comes to funding infrastructure improvements. As such, she believes Montana’s two-year students, either from the state or Obama’s initiative, need further help financing their education.

State Rep. Cheryl Steenson, D-Kalispell, served on the House Appropriations subcommittee for education during the last Legislature, where she witnessed how community colleges are “almost like the step-children of higher education,” she said, “because they’re funded in so many different ways.”

FVCC, however, has the advantage of newer, more modern facilities than its counterparts in Miles City and Glendive, she added. As an FVCC alumni and high school English teacher, Steenson hopes Obama’s initiative can help further develop dual-enrollment programs, which allow high school students to take college classes during their senior years, thus giving them a jumpstart on higher education.

“It costs a lot of money to start programs that are adapted to your community,” Steenson said. “Having more federal money to adapt and evolve, I think, is crucial.”

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