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Two-year colleges on the front lines of economic recovery

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Feb. 14, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
February 14, 2012 4:47 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Tacoma Community College President Pamela Transue doesn’t mince words when she talks about how budget cuts are hurting her school and Washington’s other two-year institutions.

“We’re watching the destruction of the educational system in our state,” she told The News Tribune editorial board in a recent visit by the five presidents of Pierce County’s community and technical colleges.

Since 2008, state funding for the two-year colleges has fallen by more than $1,000 per student and will fall to $1,200 less per student by 2013. The schools have cut staff, frozen salaries for five years, eliminated programs, made other efficiencies – and still were able to serve 19 percent more students since 2008.

Why the increase? Much of the surge in applications can be chalked up to the recession. Many workers who were laid off or had their hours cut back sought retraining. Students who otherwise might have gone to four-year schools decided to economize and attend a closer-to-home, less expensive community college.

While the two-year schools have so far met the challenge of increased demand, that’s not a sure thing going forward. Due to longer waiting lists and unavailable classes, the college presidents anticipate being able to serve 10,000 fewer students this year – a number that could grow to 40,000 if they have to absorb deep funding cuts.

Schools that prided themselves on having an “open-door” policy see that promise fading away. That’s not good news for prospective students or for the state economy. It means fewer workers with the skills employers will increasingly need as the economy inches toward improvement.

The two-year schools are able to quickly adapt coursework to meet employers’ needs, but that becomes harder to do when they’re cutting staff, classes, even entire programs. Nursing, for instance, is a high-demand field, but the schools have not been able to train more students due to budget constraints.

For many students, going to a two-year school can mean the difference between sporadic employment in dead-end, minimum-wage jobs and having a real career that contributes to the community.

The college presidents know how important their schools are in transforming lives. They serve a mostly working-class, low-income population, with nearly half of their students receiving some form of financial aid. Some are financially on the edge, on public assistance, couch surfing, or living in their cars and showering at school.

The two-year schools truly are on the front lines of the economic recovery. And while it’s unrealistic to expect that they won’t have to absorb any additional funding costs in the next budget, they shouldn’t have to take more than their fair share. The job they do is too important

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