With unemployment hovering in double digits locally, the challenges for community college students — many of whom work at least part time and balance family responsibilities — are getting even tougher.
The Florida Community College System, now called the Florida College System, was founded and continues to embrace the open door policy — providing quality higher education to everyone motivated to working toward that goal. Our system has been hailed, both nationally and internationally, as the model for a successful higher education system that delivers high quality education at an affordable price — with maximum return on investment for both students and taxpayers.
Our community colleges are touted as the best budgetary bang for their buck for students and Florida taxpayers. The citizens of our state have benefited by our cost-effective ability to meet community demand for professionals in virtually every field. Think of the nurses, paramedics, and law enforcement officers in Florida who got their start at a community college. All of this has been accomplished at a fraction of the cost to educate students at a university.
Recent high school graduates, professionals seeking career-change training, former drop-outs who now recognize that education is the answer — thrive in our dynamic classrooms. Now, adding to the mix are the thousands of recently unemployed, seeking to upgrade job skills and credentials. New students are flooding our open doors, leading to unprecedented growth in our districts and unprecedented strain on our resources.
The logic of the unemployed investing in education is admirably forward-thinking. These people are not waiting for the phone to ring with job offers that simply might not exist. When the economy rebounds and opportunity knocks, our graduates will be the ones called upon to answer the door. Or will they? With the budget cuts currently proposed for our system, we are now being forced to ask this question of our legislators.
In the past, our passion for the community college mission compensated, in part, for what we lacked in funding. Today, however, we struggle to meet enormous public demand with increasingly strained resources. If education and training are so vital to sustain our economy; if our legislators understand that an educated and skilled workforce is vital for communities to flourish, why then is the state funding for community colleges the most threatened in higher education?
Gov. Charlie Crist recently said, "Florida's community colleges enjoy a unique and much-needed role in our state by providing affordable education to students of all ages, including returning students who want to grow, refine and change their careers, because of their ability to respond to local labor market needs. … Our community colleges are uniquely positioned to prepare workers for high-demand occupations that are critical to our economy."
This statement underscores our rationale for establishing a multitude of new programs at the request of business and industry leaders seeking skilled employees in high demand fields. Yet after two years of successive funding reductions, we have been advised by the governor's budget office to anticipate an additional 4 to 10 percent cut from our base funding for the 2009-10 budget year — this at a time where we have watched our enrollments swell by over 14 percent in the last year, bringing our combined enrollment to over 76,000 students this year.
To offset these unprecedented financial losses, we have been forced to make tough choices. We are now faced with making the decision to offer fewer sections of classes, reducing the number of workforce training programs, reducing support services to our students, limiting supply and equipment purchases, and, regrettably, increasing tuition paid by our students at a time when their need for financial aid has never been greater.
If community colleges are the key to economic recovery, what message are state leaders sending to our citizens? The consistency with which the state Legislature continues to cut our funding perpetuates the paradox — without training and education, individuals will be unable to find new jobs or afford to pay the taxes that fuel the economy — directly affecting the economic climate of Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Polk counties.
The idea that our colleges and the Florida College System as a whole is a discretionary part of higher education funding must change. With our state budget in crisis, our goal is to convince legislators of the value of funding our state colleges. We must also enlist the support of business and industry and the citizens of our communities to bring a voice of reason to this funding process. We ask that our legislators fund enrollment growth, assess the lowest percentage of budget cuts possible, minimize tuition increases and allow our local boards of trustees the maximum flexibility to administer those cuts.
Eileen Holden, Ed.D. is president of Polk Community College, Katherine M. Johnson, Ed.D. is president of Pasco-Hernando Community College and Gwendolyn W. Stephenson, Ph.D. is president of Hillsborough Community College