Can Underfunded Community Colleges Provide More Job Training?

Community College leaders are in Washington lobbying for more money and a bigger role in training Americans for the workforce. In most states though, community college funding has been slashed. It's unclear if the schools can open their doors to more people or create new job-training programs.

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Community college leaders are in Washington this week, pushing for a bigger role in getting more people to enroll in two-year schools. They're also pushing the job training that business and industry say they desperately need.

Still, community colleges are significantly underfunded. And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, it's unclear whether these schools can open their doors to more people or offer programs that are likely to cost a lot more.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Community college trustees opened their three-day meeting with a sobering reality check from Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. He told the group, you represent the one institution that can best expand and deliver education and job training that Americans can afford, but don't expect Washington's help.

NORM ORNSTEIN: We will see another year mired in inaction, so stepping in to solve problems, reach compromises, not likely to happen. Now I want to end on a high note.

(LAUGHTER)

SANCHEZ: Ornstein was kidding. There was no high note.

JEAN TORGESON: I think he was on point, but I don't think he was too bleak. I mean who can be against education?

SANCHEZ: Jean Torgeson is with North Iowa Area Community College and past the chair of the Association Community College Trustees. She says lawmakers, both state and federal, are looking at community colleges to close the gap between the jobs out there and the number of people prepared to move into those jobs.

TORGESON: The concerning thing is that training the workforce is very expensive. We can't afford to train someone to be a welder on a welding machine that was donated to us 10 years ago. And the cost of training those workers is so much higher. We actually lose money on every single student we train.

SANCHEZ: Torgeson says that's why President Obama's proposal to have business and industry partner with community colleges and foot most of the bill is key. In Iowa, says Torgeson, companies like Winnebago, Target, Google are already doing that, some are even paying their employees' college tuition.

Robin Smith, a trustee with Lansing Community College in Michigan says her state is another example of why these partnerships are important. She says the auto industry's recovery would've been much harder had community colleges not come up quickly with programs that fit carmakers' specific needs to re-train workers.

ROBIN SMITH: And community college can adjust themselves, create the curriculum and deliver in a timely manner.

SANCHEZ: It's not just the private sector that benefits, says smith. Her college trains a large share of Lansing's police force, nurses, x-ray technicians, firemen. And yet, funding for community colleges in Michigan, Iowa and just about every state, has been slashed over the last 10 years according to a study by the Century Foundation. Thirty percent of that funding comes from state government, 40 percent from the federal government - mostly through the Pell grant program for low income students.

So, community college leaders are kind of fooling themselves thinking that all this attention to job training is going to translate into improved funding.

SARA GOLDRICK-RAB: And what we have right now is that students are actually being priced out of community college.

SANCHEZ: Sara Goldrick-Rab is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In her research, she argues that without major changes in the way students and community colleges are funded, expanding access, job training or anything else will run up against a wall.

GOLDRICK-RAB: I think the most promising pathway forward is what you're hearing from states like Mississippi, and Tennessee and Oregon where there's genuine interest in making the 13th and 14th years of education free.

SANCHEZ: It's not an idea though that's getting that much attention from community college trustees this week.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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