In today’s economy, two-year colleges have a great reputation for helping young people find their niche in the job market. University grads with four or more years of education are struggling to find jobs, while some two-year students are being snapped up like college football stars—going on to the NFL before finishing on the undergrad field.
“Our technical programs, across the board, are maxed out, ” says Mark Heinrich, president of Shelton State Community College. “We have an extraordinary welding program, for example, and often students don’t finish, because employers will offer them lucrative jobs. We understand that.”
Janet Kincherlow-Martin, assistant to the president for public affairs, community relations and special events at Calhoun State Community College, says, “There are a lot of two-year programs—industrial maintenance, aerospace technology, robotics—where students get a two-year degree and go right to work.” Calhoun State is the state’s largest two-year college with 12, 331 students.
“We’re fortunate all of our technology and healthcare programs have advisory boards in industry to tell us what they want from our students, ” she says. “Industry knows the quality of our students and they’re trying to snatch them away before they finish school so they can put them to work.”
While some students find lucrative jobs, those who stay in school face rising tuitions, dictated by years of proration and budget cuts. According to Freida Hill, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, “College presidents have examined every expenditure and program, cut back where possible, closed or downsized programs, left faculty positions unfilled or hired adjunct faculty (part-time), deferred maintenance, eliminated athletics, sold assets, and implemented other cost-cutting measures. One of our colleges has eliminated on-campus living.”
The state Board of Education, the governing board for the community college system, establishes tuition rates for every college in the system, and raising those rates has been inevitable. Vicki Hawsey, president of Wallace State Community College, says, “Our response to the long-term, multi-year proration has been to reduce expenditures. Of course, that’s not a long-term solution. Two years of tuition increases are not something any of the presidents wanted to do, but it’s essential to protect our colleges on a basic level.”
Hawsey says the cumulative funding loss to Wallace State from 2008 to 2011 was $9.8 million. Enrollment is up 22 percent, and funding has declined by 23 percent.
“Increasingly, the cost of higher education is being borne by the students, ” Hawsey says. “We have three administrative vacancies that have not been filled and 21 faculty positions that have not been filled. We’ve increased class sizes, slashed operational budgets—there’s only so much cutting you can do before it impacts essential services to students. It’s critical to raise tuition to continue to provide the quality of education that students expect when they enroll here.”
David Bobo, director of community and media relations at Jefferson State Community College, says, “The budget cuts have been extremely tough on two-year colleges.”
“In times of severe budget cuts, you focus on your top priorities, such as making sure students are getting the instruction and resources they need to be successful, ” says Kincherlow-Martin, adding that Calhoun’s enrollment increase in recent years has helped fill the gap caused by the lack of state funding.
“The president (Marilyn Beck) has always said, if there are cuts, we have to fill the gap, because we don’t want to compromise on education, ” Kincherlow-Martin says. “With the increase in enrollment in recent years, the impact to us has been felt, but not as much as some of the smaller colleges.”
Shelton State’s Heinrich says, “When proration occurred, we made cuts to meet the budget, ” citing athletics, supplies and the travel budget for instructors and students as areas targeted for slimming down. “We cut everything to the bone that we could without damaging our programs, ” Heinrich says. “At the same time, we had eight or nine semesters of increased enrollment, sometimes in the double digits.”
According to Hill, “The Alabama State Board of Education is extremely sensitive to the needs of our current and future students. Raising tuition is never taken lightly, but is sometimes necessary in order to cover the costs of a quality education and to replace funds lost to budget cuts and proration. Over the last three years, our colleges have had nearly one-fourth (23.5 percent) of their budgets cut due to proration.”
Value Per Dollar
Hill says the system continues to provide affordable education, with tuition about half that of Alabama’s public universities, which have increased tuition by more than 41 percent since 2007.
“Tuition increase is going to be a hardship for some, though we set aside scholarship money for those in the most desperate situations, ” Heinrich says.
Raymond W. Staats, president of Gadsden State Community College, says his school is “keenly aware of the burden that higher tuition costs place on our students. Community colleges remain, by far, the lowest cost opportunity for higher education.”
Because of the number of available jobs for two-year college students, Shelton State and many others are overrun with applications, with only a limited number of slots in some areas. The nursing program at Shelton Slates receives 400 to 450 applications for only 60 to 65 positions. Like many other technical programs, nursing is costly to operate.
“It’s an extraordinarily expensive program, and increasing it would mean we would need a lot more dollars, ” Heinrich says. “We hope in the future to look at an increase very closely, but the most technical programs are the most costly.” In fact, it’s that industry demand that could well be the key to turning things around. “One of the things the governor has said repeatedly is that we are the workforce engine of the state, ” Heinrich says. “The two-year college is the key to getting people back to work.”
Hill says that close relationship is essential in matching students with jobs. “The Alabama Community College System is always looking for ways to partner with private industry and the business community, ” Hill says.
“Many of our colleges have relationships with local businesses that provide funding, equipment, and other resources, ” she says. “We believe that through collaboration and partnerships, our colleges will continue to be the primary provider of our state’s workforce.”
Public and private grants have been a boon to Calhoun State and its goals, says Kincherlow-Martin, allowing the school to bring on new in-demand programs.
“We’ve enhanced robotics already, and in the fall, we’re adding an aviation program in partnership with Enterprise Community College, ” Kincherlow-Martin says.
A grant sprouted a program to “go green” through renewable energy.
“We’ve been able to buy equipment for health programs through a grant, too, allowing students to train on equipment they will be using when they go out into the workforce, ” Kincherlow-Martin says. “Through grants, we have been able to purchase equipment that is oftentimes better than what our students are seeing in their jobs.”
Kincherlow-Martin emphasizes the importance of two-year colleges based on current job availability—even in an era of high unemployment.
“We have well over 1, 000 students just in health care, and most of those people will leave with a job. Health care has withstood what has been happening to the economy. Unfortunately, people will always get sick.”
Grants are being used to fund scholarships, as well as to create or improve programs. Calhoun State, for instance, has scholarship money—and a new building—for a renewable energy program and scholarship money for nursing students, says Kincherlow-Martin. That’s especially helpful for students in a grueling program like nursing, who need to be able to focus on their studies rather than their finances.
“In this economy, students who didn’t qualify for financial aid five years ago now can qualify, ” Kincherlow-Martin says. “Some assume they will not qualify for financial aid, but they should apply. There are also a lot more Pell grants, and more people are qualifying, because family incomes have changed a lot over the last few years. They may have lost a job, or they’re making less.”
“The core mission of the Alabama Community College System is endangered by the lack of adequate funding to support access for students most in need of the education and work skills provided by the system, ” Hill says. “The mission is to deliver academic education, adult education and workforce development opportunities that support economic growth and the quality of life of the people of Alabama.”
By Cara D. Clark