Opinion Columns & Blogs

Benjamin T. Duran: Local colleges drive economy

California's continuing economic crisis will require sacrifice from all state agencies as budgets are slashed, spending curtailed, and investments delayed.

The bitter pill of our fiscal problems will be swallowed by all. There is, however, one statewide institution that can recharge and revitalize our economy: our community colleges.

On Nov. 24, Merced College held a rally on campus to highlight the importance of community colleges as engines of economic growth and prosperity.

Our students, many of whom come to Merced College to benefit from open access to quality education at an affordable price, will be the first to experience hardship when classes are canceled and university students seek to take their place in the classes that remain.

Our students' voices were heard loud and clear: "No budget cuts! Invest in community colleges!"

We understand how severe this crisis is, and it is a crisis by any measure. We know that community colleges will be hit hard by budget cuts.

However, we must advocate for a continuing investment in community colleges as the best means to meet the needs of Californians seeking job training or for those who intend to pursue advanced degrees at universities.

Community college enrollments are growing at a pace we have not seen in many years. Merced College is facing unprecedented growth. For the first time in history, we have surpassed the 10,000 mark for full-time equivalent students. The Los Banos campus has grown too with more than 1,000 full-time equivalent students.

This is because students are responding to the economic slowdown by returning to school. When unemployment increases, community college enrollments increase in parallel fashion.

It is estimated that more than 250,000 students will be turned away from community colleges with the proposed budget cuts. Both the CSU and UC systems have already announced that they will reduce their own enrollments. While the UC has not specified a number, the CSU will turn away 10,000 students.

Where will these students go?

They will come to their community college, a college that is already underfunded and impacted by high demand.

Unlike our partner institutions, community colleges can't simply close the doors to students.

However, reductions in class sections and services will mean a quarter-million Californians will not be able to pursue their academic and career goals.

Among them are the health-care professionals we so badly need. About 80 percent of all registered nurses are trained in community colleges.

Our radiology technicians, emergency medical technicians, and other skilled health workers are all likely to be trained at a community college, not to mention firefighters and law enforcement officers.

At a time when we have a shortage of nurses and other public safety professionals, we need to invest more in their education, not less.

Community colleges offer quality education and technical training at a fraction of the cost it takes to educate students at the CSU or UC: roughly 20 percent of CSU costs and 8 percent at UC.

Community colleges have always had to do more with less. We have always had to tighten our belts, even in the best of economic conditions.

But we've already taken more than $290 million in reductions in the 2008-09 state budget. We are facing now an additional $332 million mid-year reduction. This will impact our ability to train workers who are already affected by economic hardships.

Chancellor Diane Woodruff summed it up best: "With California's unemployment rate rising to 7.7 percent, the colleges are experiencing a 10.2 percent increase in enrollments, roughly 100,000 full-time students beyond the level for which colleges are funded. Our colleges always step up when the economy is in a downturn and this time is no different; however, it will require additional resources to sustain this effort."

Community colleges are the key to California's economic recovery. We are the largest provider of work force training in the state. Students who earn a community college degree increase their earning potential by 63 percent after three years.

For every dollar invested in a community college, the state economy receives a $3 return. That's a great investment. In Merced County alone, Merced College generates $63 million in economic activity.

We will continue to work with our legislators to resolve these issues. We would ask that you join us in reminding them that a continuing investment in community colleges is an investment in our economy, our citizens, and our future.

Dr. Benjamin T. Duran is superintendent/president of Merced College.