State, Community Colleges Divided Over Schools' Goals

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There’s a tug-of-war going on right now between the state and community colleges over their missions.

The state and a coalition of businesses want the schools to be more unified and become a better training ground for jobs that are going unfilled. But community colleges say they are already graduating students ready for work, and they don’t want more state oversight.

The missions of community colleges are as diverse as its students. We spoke to a group of students at Northern Essex Community College and Haverhill who were all studying at the school for different reason.

"Yeah there is like a lot of options here so I'm like learning, opening up my mind, and seeing what I want to do," Alex Hamil said.

"I’m in my second semester and I’m studying to become a drama teacher," Myron Volpone said.

"I might transfer to a four-year college," Kimberly Guild said. "I am definitely doing nursing but I don’t know if I want to do the nursing program here. I might go to Salem State or UMass Lowell."

Like Guild, some community college students eventually transfer to four-year schools. Others go to community college to get specific job training. It's those two paths that community colleges say they need to balance in their mission. But the state wants them to focus on job training.

Gov. Deval Patrick proposed streamlining the mission of the state's community college's in his State of the State address in January.

"They must be aligned with employers, voc-tech schools and workforce investment boards in the regions where they operate, aligned with each other in core course offerings, and aligned with the Commonwealth’s job growth strategy," Gov. Patrick said. "We can’t do that if 15 different campuses have 15 different strategies. We need to do this together."

Patrick says there are some 120,000 jobs that could be filled if community colleges focused more on job training and that the state could cut the unemployment rate in half. The governor has some of the largest business groups in Massachusetts behind his idea and they've started a new group called Coalition FOR Community Colleges.

One of the founding members of the group is The Boston Foundation and its president, Paul Grogan, says a weak community college system hurts business growth.

"Community college systems in other states have been very, very effective at building deep systemic relations with regional employers that make the community colleges a powerful economic development force," Grogan said.

But the colleges are pushing back. They say they already work with industry to align degrees with employment and they criticize the governor’s unfilled jobs estimate, saying it’s taken from a national survey and at least a third of those jobs require a four-year degree.

Roxbury Community College President Terrence Gomes doesn’t see a problem with the way the system is run now.

"All of our institutions, in particular Roxbury Community College, we know from our conversations with folks in industry and area employers what exactly we need to do with respect to meeting their employment needs," Gomes said.

Gomes and others concede they could be more effective in training workers.

But Joe LeBlanc, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, said he's "tired of hearing workforce, workforce, workforce." The council is the union that represents many full and part-time workers on campuses. He says the sudden focus on job training is politically driven.

"And I just think it’s time to pause and see if those 110,000 or 120,000 jobs out there are real and if our students are really equipped at the end of a two-year program to take on those jobs," LeBlanc said.

While the number of job openings is debatable, the governor is clear in his desire to assert more control over the system as a whole. He put $10 million in his budget to be divided among the schools, as long as there's more state oversight. It’s unclear if the House and Senate agree with the centralization and if they will include it in their budgets.

"An authoritarian, a direct, centralized approach doesn’t work," said Dan Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett Community College. "It hasn’t worked in the Soviet Union, it hasn’t worked in China, and it will not work in Massachusetts. And it did not work when we had a central board called the Mass. Board of Regional Community Colleges."

That board operated in the 1970s, but reforms starting in the 1980s moved Massachusetts away from a central authority. Grogan says that has allowed the colleges to lose accountability.

"It’s a very, kind of, expansive and blurry mission," Grogan said. "There’s a lot of uncertainty about what they are doing, what they are accomplishing, and this is an opportunity to clarify that, but also importantly to build a lot support for community colleges — and they need more support."

The implication is that if community colleges accept more oversight business will give them more funding and lobby the legislature to do the same. The 15 campuses serve half of the students in higher education and, on average, only get about 25 percent of their funding from the state. That percentage has been going down over the past decade. It leaves schools such as Roxbury Community College struggling to do things like buy updated lab equipment.

Roxbury Community College wants to build a $16 million life sciences institute so it can more than double enrollment in science majors, from 60 to 120 students. But fundraising has been slow and so far the state hasn’t contributed anything to the project.

Dr. Tala Khudairi, dean of science, technology, engineering and math, says the institute would help meet the governor's goal of closing the skills gap.

"Since our location is so close to the hospitals and to industry, we can directly meet the workforce needs in the life sciences areas," Khudairi said.

But the life sciences project is stalled and that situation typifies the push and pull of this whole debate over the future of community colleges. Aligning the system with state goals and updating course offerings to meet current workforce training needs is expensive and politically challenging.

This program aired on March 12, 2012.


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