Community colleges help combat ‘Rust Belt economy’

Jenna Staul

State officials are hoping to combat Ohio’s profound economic troubles with an unlikely source — community colleges.

Enrollment for the state’s network of 23 community colleges rose by 16.6 percent from 2008 to 2009, and Ohio Education Chancellor Eric Fingerhut said two-year institutions could play an important role as the state transitions away from its manufacturing-based economy.

“Community colleges are the most acceptable, most affordable points for access to higher education,” Fingerhut said. “And it’s obviously most focused on directing training and education to immediate career needs.”

The blueprint for the state’s focus on community colleges was outlined in the Ohio Education Strategic plan in 2008, before the recession struck nationwide, but long after Ohio’s economy turned grim.

Ron Abrams, president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, said non-competitive, open-admission institutions are a good fit for Ohio’s workforce, though they’ve never really enjoyed the limelight in higher education policy.

“Ohio has been challenged for the last decade in terms of being the old rust belt economy,” Abrams said. “The workforce has good but out-dated skills, and I think we have to do what we can to prepare them.”

Kent State, along with Cleveland State University, offers a dual-admissions program with Cuyahoga State Community College, and Ohio’s public university system offers a “transfer assurance guide” to ensure every credit taken at community college will count at a four-year institution.

“They’re essential,” Fingerhut said. “We have a large number of people in Ohio who are adults and have been out of school for a while, and for those students, the affordability and accessibility is really ideal.”

But even as a community college education becomes more acceptable, graduation and retention rates remain dismal — only 3 percent of part-time students at community colleges graduate within three years, according to the Ohio Board of Regents.

“Those numbers are probably not the best measure,” Fingerhut said, adding that those calculations don’t follow students who transfer to four-year institutions.

Abrams said students at community colleges are likely more concerned with specific job training rather than the traditional education offered at a four-year institution.

“It’s a hugely complex issue,” Abrams said. “At some point, you’d hope that the economy would pick up and people would go back to the jobs they had. But by and large, those jobs are entirely gone. People are having to retrain.”

President Lester Lefton said community colleges are crucial to building a more “robust culture of higher education” in the state.

“There’s no question community colleges are a good thing. They’re a low-cost entry point,” Lefton said. “But in Ohio, so relatively few students graduate from them.”

Contact administration reporter Jenna Staul at [email protected].