Community colleges are a key resource in attaining the nation’s goals for an educated work force

Published: January 6, 2010

Daily Press

Since arriving at Thomas Nelson Community College a little over one year ago, I have witnessed with dismay an institution seeking to fulfill its mission in the wake of what seems to be interminable budget reductions. One might argue that the halcyon days of generous public support for higher education are gone forever. But are they, and if so, at what cost?

According to one recent legislative report, funding for higher education in Virginia has declined by almost 24 percent since fiscal year 2008. Clearly, if we continue along this path our future is imperiled.

Cuts in spending for higher education are occurring when community colleges are experiencing unprecedented growth. At Thomas Nelson, we experienced an approximate 4 percent increase in full-time equivalent enrollment on our Hampton campus and a 46 percent increase at our new Historic Triangle campus in Williamsburg-James City County. We are responding to these surges in enrollments even as we absorb reduced funding. By the time classes resume in this month, we will have suffered $3,043,502 in budget cuts since July 2007.

As the stepchild of American higher education, the community college has always been expected to do more with less. We recognize that we are the work horse, not the show horse. Even so, there are limits to our ingenuity when it comes to financing core services.

We recognize that we must raise more private dollars, invariably pitting us against four-year comprehensive universities — public and private — that have been around for centuries and whose alumni possess deep pockets and extensive business, civic and political ties.

Withal, we must utilize the resources at our command, arguably the most prominent of which is our proven ability to respond to work force requirements. In addition to preparing students to earn credits to transfer to four-year colleges and universities, community colleges play a huge role in work force development.

Recently, we have heard calls from Washington and Richmond to increase the number of college graduates. President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative aims to produce 5 million additional college graduates by 2020. Governor-elect Bob McDonnell has set a goal of 100,000 new Virginia college graduates by 2025.

Last month, the State Board for Community Colleges endorsed a strategic plan that calls for increasing “the number of individuals who are educated and trained by Virginia’s Community Colleges by 50,000 to an annual total of 423,000″ by 2015. These are lofty but well-intentioned goals, and they may be attainable.

Albeit noteworthy, increasing the number of degree and certificate holders must add value to the clienteles we serve. Producing more college graduates alone won’t get the job done. Rather we must ensure that the graduates we produce are able to meet the requirements of business and industry.

A Nov. 23 Wall Street Journal report entitled “How to Rebuild Global Prosperity” concluded that an educated work force is imperative. The report’s top five recommendations are as follows:

• Education is our top national priority — well ahead of health care, climate change and financial regulatory reform — and government and business policies need to reflect that. If we don’t address this, we endanger our children, economy, businesses and national security.

• Create a national council for an educated work force comprising the secretaries of education, labor and commerce, to coordinate government activity with business to put the U.S. in the top five countries in the world for education.

• Government should devise, with the school districts and unions, a transparent method of recognizing and financially rewarding good teaching.

• Attract and retain the best and the brightest to be our teachers.

• Educate parents about the consequences of the dire state of the education system for their children’s future.

Thomas Nelson stands ready to do its part. That can happen only if community colleges receive the funding they need and richly deserve.

Community voices

Alvin J. Schexnider is president of Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton. This is one of a series of guest editorials by local leaders about issues facing the community in 2010.

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