Oregon’s Community Colleges: The Utility Players of our Education Enterprise

By Larry Galizio of Astoria, Oregon. *Larry is the president of Clatsop Community College and served in the Oregon House of Representatives from 2005 to 2009.

What do former professional athletes Sammy Baugh, George Blanda, Bert Campaneris and Jose Oquendo have in common?

They are all recognized as having been excellent utility players during their respective careers. Baugh and Blanda played professional football and Campaneris and Oquendo were Major League Baseball stars.

Variously described as “versatile,” “adaptable,” or “triple threats,” these utility players were prized for the breadth and depth of their talents and performance. Without question, these players added significant value to their respective organizations. Nevertheless, the full extent of their worth was often overlooked and even taken for granted.

I would argue that Oregon’s Community Colleges are the utility players of our public education system. Similar to “Campy” Campaneris and “Slingin” Sammy Baugh, community colleges are often underappreciated yet exceptionally valuable and productive.

Still, in recent years, just as some in the National Football League have come to embrace the quarterback capable of both throwing the long pass and acting as a rushing threat, community colleges – at least nationally – have begun to receive some of the attention that they deserve. And while it’s refreshing for those of us involved with CC’s to hear a US President single them out for praise, the continued disinvestment in these “triple threat” educational enterprises does a disservice to the economic and civic well-being of our state and nation.

Substantial Enrollment Increases

Here in Oregon, more than one-half of students entering one of the State’s seven public universities matriculated from one of our 17 community colleges.

Oregonians have been voting with their feet and taking advantage of what these educational utility players have to offer: quality, affordable general education courses and transfer degrees; workforce education and training for careers in nursing, welding and other living-wage careers; and a wide variety of community education courses reflecting the diversity of interests of citizens in communities throughout our state. Indeed, Full-Time Equivalent enrollment in Oregon’s CC’s increased 37% in the five year period ending in the 2010-11 academic year. That’s over 125,000 Oregonians enrolled full-time at a community college.

Despite the substantial increases in enrollment, community colleges in Oregon and throughout the US have embarked upon rigorous analysis and data-informed examination to increase student completion and success. I would urge anyone interested in learning more about the present and future of community colleges to read the Report from the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges. As someone who’s read through his share of uninspiring and tepid reports, I enthusiastically commend to you this Report, as it is well written, highly informative and engaging.

Oregon’s 2013 Legislative Session

So as Oregon’s Legislature plunges headlong into the 2013 Session, what are some of the key issues for our community colleges?

First, there is great hope for a governance structure that functions effectively and that recognizes the diversity of the regions and service areas of the 17 locally governed community colleges. There has been considerable work and much support for strengthening the connections among and between all sectors of Oregon’s education continuum. At the same time, local control remains a necessary condition of community college responsiveness and success. Unless we are working with our community partners and adapting to local and regional needs, we will not be fulfilling our core mission. And with local property taxes and student tuition and fees constituting the majority of our funding, we have a responsibility to be accountable to the constituents paying for our services. (As just one example, at Clatsop Community College, 90% of our funding comes from property taxes and student tuition and fees. State funding is only 10% of our revenue. This is a substantial change from just five years ago when the percentage from the State was approximately two and one-half times the current amount).

Second, reflecting the belief that we must create structures recognizing our commitment to access and student success and completion, community college leaders in Oregon are working on a funding formula that reinforces this approach. No longer are “seat-time” and enrollment exclusive markers for investment. We may or may not see a funding formula change emerge during the Session.

Third, policymakers seeking improvements in educational attainment would do well to avoid placing more unfunded mandates on our already overburdened and underfunded institutions. There’s no shortage of federal and state compliance issues in the status quo. Additional unfunded reporting requirements merely reduce time and resources better spent on instruction, advising and other measures critical to student success.

Finally, while it’s always nice to hear from lawmakers about how much they support and respect community colleges - students, businesses and everyone involved with Oregon’s CC’s has grown weary of praise accompanied by disinvestment.

Oregon’s Promise

My former colleagues and our Governor have a tremendous opportunity to both improve public education’s governance structure and to make data-informed, targeted investments that will strengthen our human capital and Oregon’s economic competitiveness in both the short and long-term.

Versatility and adaptability are qualities that make utility players particularly valuable to their respective teams. The worth of Oregon’s Community Colleges – education’s utility players – to our economic and civic capacity and productivity has been historically undervalued.

For Oregon’s 2013 Legislative Session, investing in community colleges at the 2007 level (approximately $510M for the biennium), plus supporting the 16 Tier One capital construction projects, would constitute a significant reinvestment in these underappreciated catalysts for opportunity.

I certainly hope that Oregon’s 77th Legislative Session will be remembered for its reinvestment in education’s utility players – our versatile and undervalued community colleges.

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