Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is laying out goals for the state, and as part of his plan, community colleges are getting a bit of attention.
In his State of the State address, the governor challenged Michigan community colleges to step up their game to prepare future employees for skilled-labor jobs and facilitate the transition from high school to four-year universities.
“Overall, the role of the governor is to keep the state moving forward with jobs and a strong economy,” says Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, which represents the 28 community colleges in the state. “In light of the data of unfilled jobs because employees don’t have the right skill sets, he sees community colleges as the sweet spot, and we would agree. We stand ready to serve the needs of industry and employers.”
What the support means for community colleges
In the proposed 2016 executive budget, the governor included an 8 percent increase for community colleges. Much of that increase, to $393.8 million, would go toward the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System (MPSERS), easing some cost burdens for colleges. “If the MPSERS money were not being provided, this would have to be paid out of college operations, so it is a significant cost-avoidance issue for the colleges,” Hansen says.
The proposal includes adult part-time grants totaling $6 million and a 1.4 percent increase in the community college operating budget. Money has been allotted for skilled trades and technical and career education as well.
“While the 1.4 percent increase in operations doesn’t appear on its surface to be much, given the extremely tight budget situation, and given all the other funding increases that have been provided around supporting skilled-trades training, and the new community college student scholarship, [which will target community college students who left without completing a degree but earned substantial credits towards it], this budget recommendation is a very positive first step for community colleges,” Hansen says.
The additional funding would require community colleges to participate in the Michigan Transfer Network, which provides students with advisers and information on how coursework can be transferred between educational institutions within the state.
How they can help close the skills gap
Hansen emphasizes that community colleges’ role in the overall plan is complex: It includes better high school preparedness, transition to early- and middle-college, credit and noncredit training and better pathways to transfer. “It’s not either, but all,” he adds.
Despite the improving economy, Michigan community colleges continue to face challenges, Hansen points out. One is the misperception that community colleges provide training programs, not educational programs, even though the in-demand jobs of today require math, computer programming and other high-level skills.
“How do we communicate that these are well-paying jobs that require brain skills? Not everyone needs a four-year degree,” he adds.
Hansen recently visited a snowplow factory. The work site was spotless and high-tech; employees were dressed in khakis and polo shirts and were operating the computers that run robots to weld and build the machines.
“These are not the dirty manufacturing jobs of the ’60s and ’70s,” Hansen says. “These are much different industries than they were, and I don’t know if that’s been translated.”
To that end, community colleges are working with their local industry partners to create programs and materials geared toward engaging and educating younger students about these careers.
For example, Grand Rapids Community College targeted high school students by creating a video on the benefits of skilled-trades programs.
Colleges are also working to address the fact that many programs, such as automotive technology, nursing or other health fields, require a small faculty-to-student ratio. “Some colleges are considering things like differential tuition for high-cost programs, additional program-specific fees or, frankly, just limiting the size of the program,” Hansen says. The additional funding for operations won’t significantly affect these ongoing costs, he adds.
“While we appreciate the funding that has been provided, at the same time, people are expecting more from us,” Hansen says. “We need to close the skills gap to create highly skilled and highly trained employees. We keep looking for better ways to do more with less.”