Community Colleges Need Help Fast

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By Mary Ellen Flannery

The future nurses, respiratory therapists, X-ray technicians, and other allied health employees at Oregon’s Rogue Community College get an excellent science education in their old 1970s-style building.

The problem is — it can’t fit them all. Tiny laboratories limit the number of students who can take biology lab or other required, hands-on courses, which forces Jim Van Brunt, the chair of the science department, to reluctantly turn them away from classes.

The answer? A Senate bill known as the F.A.S.T. Act (Fix America’s Schools Today) would offer $30 billion for school modernizations, including $5 billion specifically for community colleges, and could go a long way toward improving opportunities for students across the country. “With a new design, we could accommodate more students,” said Van Brunt. “And since we’re paying the laboratory instructor anyway, regardless of whether he’s got 15 or 24 students, it would be much more cost-effective and efficient.”

The bill (S. 1597), which has NEA’s strong support, calls for distributing the money to states based on student enrollment. Projects that improve instruction or job opportunities for students would be prioritized. In that way, it’s exactly the kind of federal initiative that would help put hundreds of thousands of Americans back to work.

Getting a college degree isn’t a guarantee of employment, but research shows that it is excellent protection during an economic downturn, said Boston Federal Reserve president Eric Rosengren at a recent higher-education summit. Last month, when the nation’s unemployment rate hovered around 9 percent, it was 4.4 percent for those with a college degree, he pointed out.

Since then, the unemployment rate has fallen to 8.6 percent overall—a step in the right direction—but millions of out-of-work Americans still desperately need access to high-quality, job-training programs.

When Ron Norton Reel, president of the Community College Association in California, an NEA affiliate, mentally runs through his campuses, he can quickly pair their career-prep programs with their specific community’s needs.

“Over at Taft, which is in the middle of the Central Valley, they have some really intricate programs to assist farming,” he said. Three hundred miles north at Sierra Community College, which abuts the Sierra mountains, students can learn “mechatronics,” a cutting-edge program of electronics and mechanics that will make them extremely employable at lumber mills and ski resorts.

But all of these campuses need help, Reel said. “Every one of the campuses has buildings that have been birthed and rebirthed—and it’s time to either destroy them or rebirth them again.”

A survey of California community colleges found at least 85 “shovel-ready” projects, including a replacement science center at Sierra and a vocational center at Taft. Other necessary projects include facilities to train future engineers, tradesmen, and pre-school teachers.

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