Community college emphasis makes good sense for growth

July 20, 2009
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Putting a focus on community colleges as a key cog in helping resurrect a struggling economy is a sensible and essential strategy. It’s one embraced in a speech by President Barack Obama last week when he appeared at Macomb County Community College. The president pledged increased support for community colleges, calling them an effective tool for quickly retraining workers who have been sent packing as manufacturers downsize or close completely.

New Grand Rapids Community College President Steven C. Ender comes to his role at GRCC with a big-picture perspective from decades in the profession. He recognizes the community college to be a “work force engine that continues to be in the sweet spot as a very robust enterprise.” As the college approaches an enrollment of 30,000 students, it’s clear it is recognized as a crucial player in providing a career path for area residents.

GRCC’s Job Training division already offers eight training programs designed to hone job skills that enhance employment opportunities for students, whether they are coming out of high school or re-establishing their credentials as middle-aged workers seeking to retool their worth to an employer. The school’s Continuing Education and Professional Development division offers programs in 17 different areas, with an additional 10 offerings in Life Enrichment.

GRCC offers more than 5,000 classes, seminars, programs and workshops each year. Its link to the business community is strong, with more than 600 corporate clients through its Training Solutions division offering training, consulting and assessment for business and industry.

The key to continuing the school’s impact — including working in partnership with Ferris State University and other area institutions of higher learning — is, of course, funding. GRCC and other colleges in Michigan face significant and ongoing cutbacks in state financial support. GRCC relies heavily on foundation and philanthropic support, which it has received lavishly over the years from a generous and supportive donor base. But it won’t be enough. An influx of funding support is needed in order to hold the line on the somewhat reasonable tuition rates the community colleges currently offer.

That’s why a plan such as the $12 billion proposal supported by the Obama administration represents sound economic strategy. The program would fund technology improvements, increase the number of courses offered and upgrade facilities. All of this will help reach the goal of graduating 5 million more students from community colleges by 2020.

GRCC and other two-year programs are ideally positioned to retrain workers and provide young students with skills to enter the work force, with or without the continued pursuit of a four-year degree. The school has proven it has the flexibility to adjust to the market needs, a process enhanced greatly by a faculty that sees more than 87 percent holding M.A. or Ph.D. degrees.

The concentration on community colleges is important; however, there also must be a commitment to continued improvement in the K-12 system to reduce the need for extensive remedial course work on the part of entering college freshmen. Ender recently told the Business Journal that in his 32 years in education, he has never seen remedial skills decline so extensively. With GRCC’s academic foundations program, it is providing an aggressive system to bring students up to the level they need to comprehend college-level curriculum. An essential piece of the new national initiative would be to strengthen the skills of all students prior to entering the college domain.

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