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Community Colleges Call Job Training An 'Underfunded Mandate'

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President Obama talks to students at Lorain County Community College in Ohio.
President Obama talks to students at Lorain County Community College in Ohio.

Community colleges are more than ever being tasked with the critical role of putting unemployed Americans back to work -- but they are being asked to do it with scarce funding and unrealistic expectations, according to a new report released Wednesday by the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center.

The study, called "Workforce Training in a Recovering Economy," included numbers that leaders of community colleges and job training have observed for years. Of the 49 state community college leaders who responded, 45 said that business leaders are now relying on them for workforce training -- up from 34 last year.

But the problem, the survey found, was that those same schools need more state and federal support. About 35 percent of community college leaders said that training dollars had "increasingly been exhausted" in their state, as opposed to 12 percent who disagreed with that statement.

"The community colleges that were emerging from recession, we still see a lot of states have exhausted their Workforce Investment Act funds," said Stephen Katsinas, a professor at the University of Alabama who co-authored the report. Those funds, provided by the federal government, are supposed to be used in conjunction with local unemployment centers to get people back on their feet. Currently, 12.8 million people in the United States are looking for work.

Even though the money isn't there -- and the additional billions once provided by the stimulus and a change the Obama administration made to the Pell Grant system are gone, too -- community colleges are still being called upon to fill an expanded role in their communities.

Politicians love to name-check community colleges (they've been mentioned in every State of the Union, save one, since 1996), but they also have some high hopes for them. Thirty of the 49 community colleges polled said that they were being pushed "to offer or expand 'quick' job training programs in noncredit areas" in their states.

"There's a great focus on the short term and not enough focus on investing in long term, in terms of more expensive technical training, that in turn will lead to the much higher wage jobs," said Katsinas. "The issue then is they don't have the funding to do the high-tech training that would produce the wage level we want for our workforce."

There is an emerging consensus among community colleges that they should focus their efforts on "sectoral training" in quick-growing, high-wage industries. But to teach students mechatronics, nursing or information, technology requires well-payed instructors and expensive equipment.

One way to help, said Katsinas, would be to make sure that the federal Pell Grants supporting community colleges are maintained at their current levels. House Republicans have taken aim at Pell in their budget, but Katsinas said that would harm efforts to fill the so-called "skills gap" some employers have complained about, between the skills and education levels they need in workers and what the labor force has to offer.

Or, as he put it, "you can do more with more, or you can do less with less, but you can't do more with less."