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Eastern Iowa community colleges applaud Obama plan for more federal assistance

BY CHASTITY DILLARD | FEBRUARY 21, 2012 6:30 AM

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Area community-college officials are applauding President Obama's plans to lend more support to U.S. community colleges.

The president released his 2013 budget proposal last week, detailing a plan that would give $8 billion to community college over the next three years. The administratin says the funds would improve access to job training by creating partnerships with area businesses.

"A significant need on the behalf of community colleges is to have increased capacity," said Rob Denson, the president of the Des Moines Area Community College. "The president gets it. He understands that the best way to get people into the workforce is through the community colleges."

Denson said community colleges are playing a larger role in creating a strong workforce throughout communities.

He said businesses used to be location-minded, focusing on the area's beneficial features and resources when starting a business. Now, he said, companies look for a strong, available workforce when planning future endeavors.

The budget proposal creates a goal to educate a 2-million-strong workforce to fill a job market that requires degree holders higher than high-school diplomas but not quite reaching a four-year degrees.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, later released a statement of approval for the proposal and of Obama's dedication toward preserving access to community colleges.

"These investments will help us build a workforce capable of competing in the global economy while ensuring that millions of Americans have the good-paying jobs needed to maintain a middle-class lifestyle," he said.

But Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the nonpartisan Pell Institute, said the president's proposal accepts a class-based education system.

"Some of us are grumpy about this approach," he said. "What many people seem to be comfortable saying are that four-year colleges are for wealthy students or affluent students, and two-year colleges are for poor or low-income students."

Alan Campbell, an associate communications director for the Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, said college officials believe it will hold a key part in economic boosts.

"Community colleges have long been recognized as the driver of the economic engine," he said. "We are the ones who are providing that training, who are getting the workforce ready for whatever might come, and that's one of the biggest challenges for employers in having a well-trained workforce."

Steve Ovel, the executive director of government relations for Kirkwood Community College, said any federal funding is appreciated because preparing a knowledgeable workforce is pricey.

"It's very expensive to equip our technology facilities," he said. "It's challenging to find skilled faculty, because they often were offered a lot more in private sector [schools]."

But Mortenson said four-year institutions have also experienced a slash in funding over the last decade.

"The state [of Iowa] has been starving its public universities for a very long time, and it has forced the universities to search for other ways to fund," he said, noting tuition hikes and increased enrollment of out-of-state students.

But overall, community-college officials feel the efforts are needed.

"Community colleges, particularly in Iowa, are ready to step up," Denson said. "It's very good news, but that said, it's the right direction and it helps those that need help getting to the middle-class jobs."


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