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Is Maine’s community college system meeting the state’s needs or was its creation, as the governor suggested recently, a mistake that has pushed too many Maine kids into higher education and away from jobs that need to be filled?
Consider this: The system, which has campuses all over the state, had to turn away 4,000 qualified students for the current semester, the majority of them in the ever-hot health sector. To some that’s a sign that the system, which has seen steady enrollment increases for several years, is as popular as ever. To others, it’s a clear indication that the system is not meeting the needs of the state when it comes to preparing skilled workers for an economy that desperately needs them.
More than 18,500 students are enrolled in community colleges this fall, up from just over 10,000 students in 2002. Some 93 percent of community college graduates either land jobs or continue their education somewhere else when they graduate, which to system President John Fitzsimmons is evidence that the system works for the students involved in it.
“We’ve been very pleased and very blessed with so many more students coming into our system,” said Fitzsimmons. “Our enrollment increases are slowing down a little bit, but that’s because of our inability to add more programs. Overall it’s strictly a financial issue, the inability for us to hire more faculty.”
Fitzsimmons said that community college systems in most states strive to enroll at least 3 percent of the population. In Maine, just 1.5 percent of the population is enrolled.
“We’re just plain too small,” said Fitzsimmons. “We feel a lot of pressure from a lot of places about continuing to grow. Even in these tough economic times we need to position this system for the future.”
Gov. Paul LePage, on the other hand, has been critical of the system, saying its conversion from a network of technical colleges to community colleges was wrong.
“The governor does believe that may have been a mistake,” said his spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. “He was disappointed in the change because he feels that it takes away from the fact that these are trade schools. That’s their expertise. He feels that there needs to be a closer association between community colleges and technical schools. He’d like to see a stronger collaboration there and we know that is currently happening.”
Requests from the Bangor Daily News for an interview with LePage or a prepared response from the governor to certain questions were denied.
Helen Pelletier, a spokeswoman for the community college system, said there were two reasons for the system’s conversion in 2002: the need for students in technical career paths to develop strong communication, analytical and problem-solving skills and the broader goal of having more Maine residents with college degrees.
“That in no way diluted the trade and occupational mission of the institutions,” she said. “It really expanded our mission but didn’t detract from the overall mission, which is to prepare Maine people for technical careers.”
Since the changeover, according to Pelletier, Maine community colleges have launched 75 new programs and ended about 40 others that she said “there was no longer a need for.” The new programs include computer forensics, medical assisting, medical coding, civil engineering, surgical technology, precision machining, wind power technology and biotechnology. Programs that have been discontinued include degrees there is no longer a significant need for, such as office administration, administrative office technology, sheet metals, microelectronics manufacturing and nursing assistant, according to Pelletier.
The community college system is constantly adjusting programs and creating new ones according to the needs of Maine’s workforce. At a new Southern Maine Community College campus at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, SMCC is launching a new composites program and partnering with the University of Maine System to start a first-in-the-state pre-engineering program. Kennebec Valley Community College is in negotiations to purchase a portion of the Goodwill-Hinckley School in Fairfield where it will begin a new agriculture sciences program.
Janet Sorter, vice president and dean of academic affairs for Southern Maine Community College, said over time most every program has evolved.
“We’re always looking into what the job potential is for any program,” said Sorter. “What are the requirements now and what will they be in the future?”
Composites education is an example of jobs that require skill sets that didn’t exist in the past.
“Composites went from a fairly low-skill job not requiring an education or degree to something that is now much more complex,” she said. “How they create the things they’re making gets more complex to the point that they’re needing to have an associate degree program.”
Besides health care, the employment sector with one of the highest demands is in machining-related manufacturing. Lisa G. Martin, executive director of the Maine Manufacturers Alliance, said her organization’s members — which include about 380 business — are starved for skilled employees.
“We have a very good relationship with the community college system, particularly in any of the outreach programs that have anything to do with our sector,” said Martin. “Still, we have hundreds of job openings.”
Martin said a recent example of how the system has tried to respond to the demand for employees is the creation of a specialized machining program by Southern Maine Community College. Even with programs such as that one, Martin said the machining world’s biggest challenge is convincing people to consider it as a career in the first place.
Though there’s little denying that some Maine businesses are short on employees, some say that doesn’t necessarily indicate a shortcoming in the community college or technical school systems. Glenn Mills, an economist for the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information, said there are many other factors at play, not the least of which is the distance between a skilled worker and an employer who needs him or her. Another issue, he said, is many jobs have become so specialized that companies have let workers go who at another company might be prime employment candidates.
“The reality is it’s a moving target. You’re dealing with the constantly changing needs of employers,” Mill said.
Bennett said despite LePage’s past criticism, his actions illustrate his support for the system. After years of cuts by the Baldacci administration, Lepage’s first biennial budget, which was supported last year by the Legislature, increased education funding levels for community colleges. According to data from the community college system, state appropriations for the system have risen since 2008 but due to increasing enrollment, the per-student funding has dropped.
In 2008, state funding for the community college system was at $51.9 million. Since then, funding has increased to $54.9 million projected for fiscal year 2013. In that same time period, the per-student appropriation has dropped from $3,752 to $2,935 in the current year.
According to Fitzsimmons, state subsidy accounts for about 31 percent of revenues and tuition makes up about 25 percent. The rest is federal government money mixed with some private investments. Fitzsimmons said raising tuition is not the answer to the system’s financial travails, though he expects a modest increase of up to $60 per year for a full-time student when the trustees set tuition rates in March.
As with any government program in this slack economy, the community college system either needs more money to grow or to use existing funding in different ways, according to LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. To that end, the administration has been working on a sweeping new education strategy for Maine, which is set for release early next year. Though the Department of Education has limited oversight over higher education programs, it has been working closely with the community college and university systems to create a vision that is supported across all education levels, according to LePage spokeswoman Bennett.
In July, LePage, by executive order, created Maine’s Task Force on Expanding Early Post-secondary Access for High School Students in Maine. The task force’s charge is developing recommendations for short- and long-term ways to expand post-secondary education opportunities for Maine students.
The task force, which includes a range of education officials and legislators, has held four meetings with recommendations due by the end of the month.
A recent survey of 104 guidance counselors in Maine, which was compiled by the task force, showed overwhelmingly that students who take early post-secondary courses in high school are more likely to continue their education careers.
Bennett said LePage agrees that healthy high school-level technical programs are crucial to feeding students into the community college system, but that he suspects too many students and parents simply don’t have the information they need to make informed decisions.
Education Commissioner Bowen said his focus is “aligning” high school technical programs with community colleges and the university system so students can transition seamlessly and in some cases, earn credits toward high school diplomas and college degrees simultaneously.
“We’ve been talking all summer about looking at ways to bring the system into alignment and create better pathways for kids,” he said, adding that those discussions continued in earnest in late November when he met with community college President Fitzsimmons and University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude.
But, it isn’t all about technical education. One thing long talked about by LePage — which is likely to be reflected in the upcoming strategy document under development in the Department of Education, according to Bennett — is creating five-year high school programs that allow students to attain credits toward an associate’s degree along with their high school diplomas. Such a program is already being piloted by the University of Maine at Fort Kent and MSAD 27. It currently involves 25 students but by year three of the pilot project is targeted to involve as many as 150 students in the Upper St. John River Valley.
Community College System President Fitzsimmons said the future of community colleges in Maine in some ways is uncertain, especially when it comes to how the system is to expand and continue adapting when more money just isn’t available.
“The first thing people say is how come you just can’t bring in more revenues from tuition,” said Fitzsimmons. “Our tuition is at about $2,500 a year. It’s priced to attract Maine people to go to college. If the cost goes up too high it’s a deterrent. The answer to our financial travails is not raising tuition. Raising more money from the private sector and the state budget is the answer.”