Community colleges play key role in tough economic times

Many schools have to turn away those seeking new job skills. Proposed federal funds could help.

Rhoda Joseph's story is a familiar one by now. After a 20-year career as a chemist, she was laid off just before Christmas and came home "thinking the world was coming to an end."

What's different is that a silver lining awaited her in Bucks County, Pa.

"I saw in the paper, within days of my layoff, that [the community college] was offering free tuition for displaced workers," she says. "I thought, here's an opportunity for me to go back and see if I can fashion a new career." Now she's enrolled in a paralegal class, hoping to transfer her science skills into patent or intellectual property law.

In Pennsylvania, all 14 community colleges are offering or finalizing plans for tuition assistance to locals who've lost jobs. More than 1,000 people are already signed up, says Diane Bosak, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. Among the nation's 1,200 community colleges there is no tracking of how many are making similar gestures, but examples can be found in New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Washington State.

"It's an ingrained value of the community colleges, that they're there to serve the educational needs of their communities, and they have always responded as quickly as they can," says George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington.

Inspired by the colleges in his home state of Pennsylvania, Sen. Bob Casey (D) has just proposed a bill that would reimburse community colleges up to $1,000 for each displaced worker whose tuition is waived. The funds would come from the US Department of Labor's Community-Based Job Training Grants program.

"If the community colleges can get some help from the federal government to make this a nationwide initiative, it can help with ... a transition for those who are unemployed," Senator Casey says.

Oakton Community College, outside Chicago, launched its "Reboot" program this winter for local residents laid off after Jan. 1, 2008. Tuition is free for at least one semester for five subjects that are in demand, including computer programming and green marketing. Eighty-three people signed up before the classes filled to capacity, says career-services manager Robin Vivona .

"We had people who were driving buses [and] people who were in middle management and everywhere in between," Ms. Vivona says. Without the tuition waiver, many told her, they wouldn't have taken the courses. "A lot of people thought of education as a luxury."

Ron McMath says he jumped at the free classes at Oakton's campus in Skokie, Ill., which he heard about through a support group at the local library. After more than a decade in information-technology with an international firm, he was laid off a year ago. He's gotten by on a small fruit-and-vegetable franchise and part-time sales work for his wife's company. But now he's in class for five hours a night, five nights a week, to become a certified computer diagnostic specialist. "I know how to build a computer from scratch now," he says, which will add hardware troubleshooting to his skills.

Despite their desire to help, community colleges often can't find enough money, staffing, or space to keep up with demand. Right now they're facing surging enrollments not only from adults in need of new training, but also from young people seeking affordable higher education.

"In most of our states, community colleges are experiencing cuts in state and local public support," Mr. Boggs says. He applauds Senator Casey for his tuition proposal, but adds, "It isn't the total solution. Unless basic funding support is restored ... the colleges may not be able to accommodate all of the students who need them."

Some relief is on the way through federal stimulus spending for education and worker retraining. But it's not yet clear how much of that money will flow to community colleges, and amounts will vary by state.

The needs of community colleges will likely get a good hearing at the US Department of Education, however: Martha Kanter, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California, has been nominated as under secretary of education, the highest post in that department for a community college leader.

State funds already have dried up for dislocated-worker tuition at Bellevue Community College in Washington, though the fiscal year doesn't end until July. Enrollment in the program has doubled every quarter since last summer, and the school cobbled together funds from other parts of the budget to support students for the winter quarter. "We started turning people away about a month ago," says Darlene Molsen, director of workforce education. At least 200 people who were interested couldn't enroll, and she estimates another 200 would have signed up if word hadn't hit the street that funding was gone.

"I've been in this business for many, many years and this is the toughest time that I remember," she says.

Ms. Molsen works closely with the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County, which is due to receive about $4 million through the federal stimulus. Some of that money can go toward tuition.

Senator Casey's proposal is a welcome one, too, she says. The $1,000 per student "wouldn't cover full tuition and books, but if we could combine that with the funding we have, then perhaps we could make the students whole."

Bucks County Community College (BCCC) in Pennsylvania, where Ms. Joseph is enrolled, is using its own money to give tuition assistance. It's done this before – in the 1990s after the closure of a nearby steel plant, and after the economic ripples of the 9/11 attacks.

This time, it's on a much larger scale, with more than 400 displaced workers enrolled in such subjects as education, accounting, and business administration. They can take up to 30 credits in one academic year, saving about $3,000, though they need to pay for fees and books themselves.

Participants have remarked "how much they think the college responds to the needs of the community, and how they didn't realize how much we had to offer," says Karen Dawkins, a vice president and dean of student affairs at BCCC. "It's been gratifying on both ends."

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