Community colleges: Great value close to home
Our community colleges are the Rodney Dangerfield of higher education. They just "don't get no respect" - respect that they deserve and continue earning every day.
Washtenaw Community College (WCC) is the grand entranceway to enhancing knowledge and skills, giving individuals a boost up life's economic ladder while strengthening the greater community.
At WCC, the students are being taught by instructors who are focused on teaching what they know best, and students are saving themselves and their families a ton of cash.
Given the troubling, tumultuous, transformational times we are now living in, our community colleges are truly a life-saver for many.
"Too often, community colleges are treated as an afterthought - if they're thought of at all," President Obama said in a speech at Macomb County Community College last summer. The president proposed sinking $12 billion into revamping our country's community college system.
This ambitious and much-needed plan would invest $9 billion in grant money to boost academic programs and raise graduation rates, plus another $2.5 billion to upgrade school infrastructure. It would also fund open-source e-learning courses so that schools don't have to build more classrooms to admit more students.
The soaring rhetoric has yet to translate into money. Legislative bills are still winding their way through committees in Congress.
Locally, WCC makes a significant difference in helping prepare students and employees for our hyper-competitive and technologically driven global economy, where ideas and jobs can now move across the globe effortlessly. Our community colleges are doing this important work with ever shrinking resources from Lansing.
Thirty years ago, on average, Michigan's community colleges received nearly 50 percent of their funding from state appropriations and another 25 percent each from property taxes and tuition. Today, the state's contribution is less than half that - 20 percent - while the other 80 percent is derived from property taxes and tuition, according to Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.
In the last Michigan budget cycle, community colleges were one of the only areas not reduced, and we'll be fortunate to repeat that again this year. Yet we all know that may be difficult when costs such as health care, utilities and pensions continue to rise and tax revenue has flatlined.
Making up the difference for the loss of revenue from state and local property taxes by adopting huge tuition increases is unrealistic, especially in the depressed economy Michigan currently finds itself in.
Another reason for investing in our community colleges is how responsive they are to local needs by providing re-education for laid-off workers.
It has been argued that our country's university system stands on tradition - change for it is like turning an ocean liner. In contrast, community colleges respond like a speedboat in providing education to meet immediate community and business needs. Community Colleges are agile, innovative and think creatively to solve the educational needs of the students and local employers.
As Michigan's economy evolves, many of our residents are using community colleges as the means to tap into change. Gone are the days when one could leave or drop out of high school, enter an auto factory and emerge with a middle-class income. Michigan's community colleges carry a heavy load and will continue to do so as Michigan transforms itself from a "heavy lifting" state to one with a knowledge-based economy.
Community colleges are essential to Michigan's ability to move from the state that "put the world on wheels" to the state that provides the education and skills to all its citizens to compete as we reinvent ourselves. Today's students/workers need to be able to learn continuously, think critically and adapt to a changing economy.
We cannot and will not compete with developing nations on low-wage and low-skilled jobs. Our future depends on skilled, knowledgeable and flexible workers who can pivot rapidly and stay ahead of our global competitors. That workforce is being prepared today by WCC.
Perhaps former President Bill Clinton captured the value of our local community colleges best when he reflected, "If community colleges had yet to be invented, there would be a mad rush to do so today."
Washtenaw Community College has earned the respect and deserves the support of the taxpayers.
Tom Watkins is an education and business consultant in the U.S. and China and served as Michigan's state superintendent of schools from 2001-2005. This column was adapted from its original article, which appeared in www.domemagazine.com.