Arizona needs to fund its ‘Gateways’

At the first-ever Community College Summit in October, President Barack Obama called the institutions “a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life,” and a place “where workers can gain new skills to move up in their careers.” Obama has since moved to financially back his statement by directing $12 billion in federal stimulus money to our nation’s community colleges.

However, as almost every other facet of our society, this “gateway” is being reduced or restructured because of the weak economy. Due to the recession, enrollment at community colleges increased. Unemployed or underemployed people wanted to refine or upgrade their skills or new students may have wanted to save precious dollars before enrolling in a four-year university.

A recent ominous Washington Post article casts a sordid shadow over the state of our junior colleges. The article pointed out that New York’s community colleges stopped accepting student applications for the fall semester last May. In addition, a community college in Nevada was forced to reject 5,000 students due to reduced budgetary funding. These institutions, which serve as stepping-stones for hundreds of thousands of students, now find it more difficult to perform this valuable function for students seeking a less expensive education because of financial constraints.

One of the most important functions of these institutions is that most provide work-skills programs that can educate students to help rebuild or strengthen our nation’s infrastructure and service industries. Now, even that is in jeopardy.

This is being felt on the local level. The Maricopa Community College system is one of the largest in the country and has the resources to provide Arizona with much needed aid by effectively training occupational students.

Maricopa Community Colleges spokesmen Tom Gariepy said in a phone interview “90 percent of people involved in public safety in Maricopa County have had some courses at MCC during their careers.”

Furthermore, Gareipy said that the colleges were the largest job trainer in Arizona in a “key to recovery.”

This key is at risk; The Arizona Republic reported a decrease of funds from 7.1 million to 6 million dollars stemming from the sales-tax Proposition 301 to the Maricopa Community Colleges. All money received from this source is required to be spent on workforce development.

In an e-mail, Steve Kiefer, the director of the Center for Workforce Development at the Maricopa Community Colleges, warned that due to decreasing funds, “We may have to reduce the number of classes offered or increase the number of students per class.

“We may even have to cut programs with low enrollments.  That’s the reality of the situation,” he said

The array of courses the Maricopa Community College system offers in workforce development is proof that funding must be allocated from other sources if Prop 301 income is insufficient.

Students can take courses in student-teaching programs, law enforcement and lab assistant programs — all of which are skills that will be in high-demand well into the foreseeable future.

Failing to provide either our current public sector workers or new job-seekers a chance to further their education in an economical and efficient way harms us all. The economy demands an effective workforce, so give our gateways the necessary resources to produce one.

Send your comments to Zach at zlevinep@asu.edu