Community colleges could see building boom

October 23, 2011
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LANSING — Michigan community colleges could receive $157 million for buildings, classrooms, laboratories and technology under President Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act.

State universities have been left out of the discussion.

The funding — $5 billion nationwide — would be used to update an aging community college system and spur job growth, according to the White House.

Federal officials say that “deferred maintenance,” projects put off for lack of funding, equal about $100 billion at community colleges around the country.

Enrollment at Michigan community colleges has increased 35 percent in the past five years, said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. It’s because of that increased use of facilities, Hansen said, that old community college buildings need updates now more than ever.

“With these record enrollments, sometimes things just get used harder,” he said.

Steven Ender, president of Grand Rapids Community College, welcomed the proposal.

“We need to find dollars for infrastructure just to prop buildings up,” Ender said, speaking figuratively.

He said if Congress approves the proposal, his college could update its nearly 100-year-old main building, which needs $7.5 million to upgrade its energy efficiency and boiler. Even more funds are needed to improve classroom space.

Federal officials say the goal of Obama’s proposal to modernize community colleges is simple: create jobs. Hansen believes funding community colleges will produce that result twofold.

“If you renovate a lab, sure, there is the stimulus of the people that do work renovating the lab. But think about the 50 students every semester that go through that lab and now have skills to become nurses, allied health workers or radiologists,” Hansen said. “That’s the real stimulus.”

Left out of Obama’s Job Act were the state universities, which won’t receive any additional stimulus.

“To be honest, we’ve basically been disrespected by the state and federal administration for years,” said Trevor Tenbrink, vice president of political affairs on Grand Valley State University’s Student Senate and a junior studying political science and business.

Tenbrink said tuition at Grand Valley has “constantly been on the rise,” class sizes have increased and scholarship programs have been cut to save money — all of which he believes burden students seeking a liberal arts education.

Michael Boulus, executive director at the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, said the absence of funding for state universities was not a slight. He said community colleges are ideal for those who only need a few classes or a short training period in order to secure a job, so the funding choice made sense.

Community colleges, unlike state universities, are very “occupationally oriented,” Hansen said, and have a quick turnaround for certification and short-term degree programs that get people out into the job market.

“Post-secondary skill sets and the kind of work that community colleges do very well may be part of what is driving this agenda,” Ender said.

While community colleges say they need the money and they have good use for it, nothing is guaranteed.

The American Graduation Initiative, Obama’s attempt in 2009 to fund community college improvements, was shot down by Congress during the health care debate.

“I think until we see where the money is coming from to pay for the initiatives and until I see the House and Senate starting to compromise, I’m not banking on anything,” Ender said. “I know what we’d like to do, I know we have a strong case for what we’d like to do, but will the money actually appear? If the past predicts the future, then you can’t be very hopeful.”

Hansen said the proposal has “a long uphill battle.”

If the proposal is approved and states receive the funding, then the amount a college could receive would be based on enrollment, level of need and an application process.

“I would just be tickled to death if this money flowed because we have serious needs and this money would help us considerably,” Ender said.

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