Community college key to Maine’s economic future

Posted Aug. 12, 2009, at 7:55 p.m.

It is unlikely that 2009 will be remembered as a year of good news. Maine’s struggling economy, high unemployment, a relentlessly rainy June and July: The gray clouds are everywhere. But for those able to search for a silver lining, now is a good time to look up, as a new school year — and all its possibilities — approaches.

At Maine’s community colleges, we are preparing once again for record enrollments. This fall, over 15,000 individuals will be studying at one of our seven institutions, an increase of nearly 5,000 students since 2002. In spite of job losses and deep financial concerns — in some cases because of them — individuals across Maine are enrolling in community college and working to build a more secure life for themselves and their families. This is good news for them and for the future of Maine’s economy.

That so many students are turning to our community colleges is a clear indication that the institutions are working as intended when they were created by Gov. Baldacci and the Legislature a little more than six years ago. They are providing students with an efficient, affordable and convenient pathway to higher education.

When Maine’s economy begins to grow again, these students and graduates will be ready to take advantage of new opportunities in both existing and emerging industries. And Maine will be better positioned to address the economy’s need for highly skilled workers in health care, green energy, biotechnology, precision manufacturing and other growth areas.

At the community colleges, we are following the lead of our hardworking students and viewing this difficult time as an opportunity to retool, to find new solutions to old challenges and to lay the groundwork for a more promising future.

We are expanding our programming into new and emerging industries. This fall, 36 students will be enrolled in Northern Maine Community College’s wind power technology program. In Brunswick, Southern Maine Community College’s Maine Advanced Technology Center will continue to help students gain skills necessary for employment in industries that use advanced manufacturing and composite applications. And Kennebec Valley Community College is working to develop a new program that will be focused on green energy technologies.

We also are working overtime to help Maine’s unemployed find a foothold in the economy. Displaced workers are turning to our colleges in large numbers. Most of them are nontraditional students: They are older, have families that depend on them and often find that nontraditional schedules and school calendars work best for them. To meet their needs, we are continuing to expand our online programming and to look at ways to offer more flexible scheduling.

At Northern Maine Community College this past spring, the college began a new semester in March in order to accommodate those who had been laid off from area mills in January, too late to enroll in the spring semester.

Our colleges also are deeply committed to meeting the educational and economic needs of rural Maine in an effort to ensure the long-term viability of our state’s rural communities. This fall we will be delivering six health care degree programs to underserved communities. And through a grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation we will dramatically increase the number of community college scholarships available to rural Maine residents.

But these efforts are not enough. From their inception, our colleges have worked — and worked hard — for the people of Maine. Severe constraints on the state budget mean that our resources are stretched thinner than ever. But now is not a time to rest or retrench. In building a community college system, Maine has made a strategic investment in the state’s future. But the potential — and the power — of the community colleges to create jobs and opportunities have not yet been fully realized.

So here is what you can expect from us as we look forward to a new academic year and new challenges.

- We will remain focused on our mission to meet the state’s changing workforce needs by continuing to work closely with businesses and communities across the state.

- We will expand on collaborations with the University of Maine System and Maine Maritime Academy to ensure that the community colleges continue to be highly efficient and responsive to the needs of our students.

- In a state that has long lagged the rest of New England in the number of its residents with a college degree, it is vitally important that we continue to build pathways to higher education. Indeed, our goal is to add 5,000 more students over the next seven years.

- Clearly, the demand and need for our services will outpace the state’s capacity to fund our institutions for the foreseeable future. As a result, we are committed to doing far more than ever to attract new sources of revenue — through fundraising, grants and contracts, and innovative partnerships.

- Finally, we pledge to keep community college affordable, so that education remains within reach for all those who so desperately need it to build a secure future for themselves and their families.

In difficult, cloudy times, these efforts will require the same hard work, sacrifice and focus that our students demonstrate every day. We are committed to that task and to helping our students succeed — both for their future and for the state’s.

John Fitzsimmons, Ed.D., is president of the Maine Community College System.

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