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Community Colleges: Better Deal and Faster Career Track For Many Students

Diablo Valley College officials say they have to turn away thousands of students each semester due to demand and budget cuts.

It can be an emotional time when students are signing up for classes at Diablo Valley College.

The Pleasant Hill campus has enrolled 20,471 students for the fall semester. That's down from the 24,000 or so they had a few years ago.

But the reduction is not because of demand. It's because of state budget cuts.

The college has to offer fewer courses and thousands of students every semester do not get the classes they are seeking.

"There are lots of tears around here during enrollment," said Kim Schenk, the college's dean of career technology education and economic development.

Despite a recent leveling off of enrollments, community colleges across the country have enjoyed an expansion of student interest and attendance.

Students are seeing community college programs as a way to quickly land good-paying jobs in industries that are truly hiring — and for far less tuition than they’d pay for a typical bachelor’s degree.

Those who run community colleges are finding private companies all but begging them to train more students to fill in-demand jobs, especially in growing areas such as advanced manufacturing, emergency response and medical fields.

According to the National Association of Community Colleges:

  • About 8 million U.S. students enrolled in community college in 2011—up from about 6 million in 2010.
  • Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States attend a community college.
  • Community colleges educate 59 percent of new nurses and 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers and EMTs.

“A lot of people thought manufacturing was gone. What we call the high-tech jobs are still here,” said Maria Coons, executive director of Workforce and Strategic Alliances at Harper College in the northwest Chicago suburbs. “A lot of them are made-to-order and they are very specialized.”

Diablo Valley College finds itself fulfilling this role.

Schenk said the college is experiencing an influx of older students who have lost jobs and are looking for new careers.

"Retraining is essential in this economy," said Schenk. "These students are looking for a new skill set."

Many are enrolling in health care courses because of the uptick in hiring in that industry. Classes such as nursing, respiratory therapy, medical lab technology and dental technology fill up quickly.

The school also has an organized program for students interested in advanced manufacturing. The courses include electronics and machinery.

For the business world, classes like computer technology and accounting remain popular.

The price is right for many of the students. DVC costs $46 per unit, so a full-time semester can run from $550 to $700.

The lower costs also attracts high school graduates who don't get into the state colleges or universities they desire or simply need to save some money.

"Parents and students are looking for alternatives these days," said Schenk.

The most recent federal unemployment numbers show the overall economy still favors those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. They have a 4.1 percent unemployment rate versus 7.1 percent for those with an associate degree or some community college education.

But both of those numbers trump the experience of workers who choose not to pursue any education after high school. Their unemployment rate stood at 8.7 percent in July. (And 12.7 percent for those who don’t complete high school.)

About 57 percent of job openings between 2006 and 2016 will require some form of postsecondary-education, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With that in mind, DVC has made connections with local businesses that want new employees with training and newly acquired skills.

Among the employers is John Muir Medical Center, the Shell Oil refinery in Martinez and the USS Posco steel mill in Pittsburg.

"We work diligently with the business community," said Schenk. "It's a nice pipeline for them."

The future of DVC enrollment is tied to the state budget and whether voters approve Prop. 30, the temporary tax increase measure on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Without extra funding, the college will have to cut back furthur, starting with the spring semester next year.

"We won't be able to expand to meet demand," said Schenk.

Tom September 19, 2012 at 07:02 PM
What is the policy for illegal aliens to be admitted? I am interested to hear that.

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