Where would we be without community colleges?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 21, 2011

By Dr. Freida Hill

Alabama Postsecondary System

MONTGOMERY – As I travel our state, I enjoy talking to community and business leaders, economic developers, educators, and local citizens about one of our state’s finest resources – its community college system. My goal is simple. I want to know how the Alabama Community College System can better serve the citizens of this state. Everywhere I go, I ask the same question: What would your community be without its two-year college?

The responses to my question have been wide-ranging, but strikingly similar:

Many have said that without our community colleges, they would never have been able to go to college or have a career. Higher education would be less accessible to the thousands of citizens who depend on our campuses to provide an affordable pathway to a quality education and a better life.

Those who need a job or want a better job would have fewer opportunities to complete their education, acquire additional training and certifications, or retrain for a new career.

Without two-year college graduates, the local economy would suffer. Increasingly, employers will seek out workers with highly sophisticated technical skills. Without an available and highly-skilled workforce, fewer businesses and industries will locate to our state.

As a system, we educate and train more nurses than any other state system of higher education, and our only upper level institution – Athens State University – produces as many teachers as any other single four-year institution in the state. Without community colleges, this ready supply of highly skilled graduates would be lost, along with the critical partnerships that connect these workers to available jobs.

High school students would no longer be able to enjoy the benefits of dual enrollment programs that provide opportunities to earn college credit, and in some cases, a degree, by the time they graduate.

Boomers who want to retrain for a second career or take advantage of our continuing education offerings would lose those convenient and affordable options.

For many communities, our campuses have become community centers for cultural excellence, offering for some the only access to drama, music, or education within commuting distance.

As I continue to meet with the citizens of Alabama, their message is clear: Community colleges can, and do, make a difference.

As a product of a community college myself, I am especially proud of the important and unique roles that they play in our state’s educational offerings. Not only are our students achieving personal and professional success, but for many of our students, our colleges represent the only opportunity they have of obtaining a higher education.

Alabama’s public community college system is the state’s single largest system of public higher education and is Alabama’s most affordable and accessible system of higher education.

With 25 community and technical colleges, Marion Military Institute, Athens State University, AIDT, and the Alabama Technology Network, we provide a broad array of educational services for hundreds of thousands of individuals each year, meeting diverse and changing local needs and fulfilling a vital function within their service areas.

As the primary provider of workforce training in the state, the ACCS through its Workforce Development Division coordinates skills training activities to ensure that resources and strategies are aligned to meet priority needs. These needs are identified at the grassroots level by ten regional workforce development councils comprised of employers, economic developers, and elected officials.

The Alabama Community College System enrolls more than half of all freshmen and sophomores in Alabama, enrolling over 146,000 credit students in its academic and career technical education programs in 2010, 95% of whom are Alabama residents, with nearly 15,000 community college students transferring yearly to a public four-year institution.

More than 7,500 high school students enrolled in the system’s dual enrollment and early college programs in 2010. These programs provide high-achieving students with rigorous courses beyond those offered at the secondary level, increase college access to low-income, racially/ethnically diverse, and first generation college attendees, and others who would not otherwise be college-bound.

Over 175 career technical programs provided state-of-the-art training in high-demand, high-wage occupations to more than 3,700 dually-enrolled high school students last year. These programs, and the highly skilled workers they produce, attract new businesses to our state.

More than 800,000 Alabamians age 16 and older have neither a high school diploma nor a GED, and about 500,000 of those are of working age. The Alabama Community College System served more than 25,000 of those individuals through its adult literacy education programs and services last year.

The Alabama Community College System, partnering with business, industry, and government, provided customized training, job skills training and assessment, and workforce development services for more than 100,000 Alabama workers and job seekers last year. Specialized transition services and retraining have been provided for the more than 5,700 employees adversely impacted and dislocated by industrial downsizing in 2010. These services and training initiatives provide essential contributions to the state’s economic development.

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Page Three

Dr. Freida Hill

AIDT plays a vital role in our state’s economic development efforts. AIDT’s ability to attract and train a skilled workforce for new and expanding industries has been nationally recognized for its expertise, and its mission is critical to this state’s economy.

The Alabama Technology Network (ATN) provides essential services and training to existing industries, primarily small to mid-size businesses. ATN has 18 sites throughout the state to help keep these businesses healthy and productive.

Because of its ability to develop and adapt educational and technical programs for specific workforce needs, I believe the Alabama Community College System bears the responsibility of leading our state into economic recovery. Governor Bentley has confidence in our system. He has asked us to increase our efforts in workforce training and to create a unit for small business assistance. We are pleased to take on these new and additional responsibilities.

Despite the funding difficulties we face during tough economic times, our system remains committed to its mission of providing world class education, workforce training and services to our students, yielding a well-educated, productive citizenry and a better prepared workforce, ready and willing to expand and strengthen our economy.

The Alabama Community College System is essential to the future of our state. I urge all Alabamians and business and industry leaders, who are committed to developing Alabama’s workforce for the 21st century, to use and support their local community colleges.