The Evolution Of Metro Community Colleges
There are preconceived notions of community colleges. You'll hear things like "you only go there if you can't get into a 'real' college" or that maybe "you're not serious about school" or maybe even that oldie but goodie, "you get what you pay for in terms of instruction."
"Attitudes are hard to measure, of course," says Mike Hansen, president of the Lansing-based Michigan Community College Association. "So I can't truly say if the stigma is changing. But I can tell you that these schools are not just for people who can't get into (four-year) colleges. I mean, we have high school valedictorians on our campuses." Community colleges are different, of course, but not less-than. They have different missions than four-years and there is a reason that the word "community" precedes the word "college."
That's their priority, the community.
There are 28 community-driven colleges in Michigan, spanning from the western tip of the Upper Peninsula in Ironwood down to Monroe – 640 miles away and about 20 minutes from the Ohio border. Enrollment for these institutions as of fall of 2008 was nearly 235,000 students, up more than 3 percent from the prior year.
In fact, enrollment as a whole for these schools has been on the rise since the turn of the century (2000, that is), despite the fact that state community college funding has decreased nearly 9 percent over the same time frame.
"Enrollment has been growing since 2001 and each school has seen almost record enrollment numbers," says Hansen. "We're also seeing growth in community colleges by traditional age students, too. The 18 to 22 age group."
And some of the largest community colleges are right here in Southeast Michigan.
Hansen describes what community colleges call the "counter cycle." Basically what it means for these schools is that when the economy dips, enrollment increases and as the economy recovers, enrollment decreases. Four-year universities become too expensive or job losses force people to retrain at these considerably less expensive colleges during the lean times. He says it's been that way for the last 30 years.
But this time it's different. "I think we will continue to see increased enrollment," he says. "Campuses are busting at the seams."
Permanent "counter cycle"
Obviously the biggest draw for community colleges is the price. Generally credit hours are 1/3 of what they are at four-year universities. And as parents tighten the belt, their local community college starts to look like a better option for their college bound students. Additionally, as the unemployment rate grows, retraining presents itself as an option to grow a skill set without the commitment of four years and full-time.
"Location (of the community colleges) is convenient to its students, cost does factor into it, and we've always had quality programs and instruction. We're a multi purpose institution," says Sharon Miller, the dean of workforce development at Oakland Community College. "But the main role of a community college is to be responsive and nimble to the immediate geographic community and their needs both in employment and education."
As of fall 2008, OCC had the highest enrollment of any community college in the state. Its early numbers indicate that this year, winter attendance was up from last fall, something that is very uncommon with community colleges. And spring enrollment looks to have increased by a little over 16 percent.
Miller's "responsive and nimble" comment is something that all community college officials, deans, and presidents talk about.
"Community colleges aren't stand-alone institutions, but we're agile," says Jim Sawyer, vice provost for career preparation at Macomb Community College. "There has been a lot more attention on community colleges. We're being recognized as training and retraining facilities."
And if you look at many area colleges' recent additions of a number of programs, you'll sense how agile and responsive they really are to their communities.
Seeing (and thinking) green
OCC, for instance, has a developing green construction program scheduled for the fall. It'll revolve around weatherization and the deconstruction of buildings to reuse the material. There's a four-week accelerated engineering program to retrain laid off engineers.
"We have to have a good sense of where employment opportunities will be," Miller says. "We ask 'What are these green jobs? What are the skill sets?' There's not a huge demand right now for 'green' jobs but it'll continue to grow."
Other schools have also initiated, or are initiating, programs based around green technology and renewable energy.
Macomb Community College is starting a new certificate or associate's degree program on renewable energy beginning in the fall.
"We're certainly seeing a trend here toward alternative energy and green technology," Sawyer says. "It's more of an evolution of skills than really anything else." At its roots, green tech and alternative energy are rooted in manufacturing skills. It's just the tweaking of those skills, so to speak.
"What we keep hearing is that we have to train workers for the new economy. But what I say is that it's the same skills of the old economy," says Larry Whitworth, Washtenaw Community College president. "The working parts of wind turbines are still mechanical."
"What we really need is to have a change in mindset of the people and adapt to these changing (economic) needs. It's a painful realization that we're facing these manufacturing changes, but they are changing permanently."
Ready for their close up
Another move toward Michigan's changing workforce is the film industry. When the film incentives were passed early last year, Michigan's projects jumped from the single digits to more than the fingers and toes you and your best friend have combined. The infrastructure for such a jump, however, wasn't there. Some productions brought in their own crews and the number of people that were actually trained to work on film sets here was limited.
Seeing the void and being as "responsive" to the community as these colleges are, several in Southeast Michigan developed film crew training programs. Henry Ford Community College ran a program in the winter and will have one again this fall. Macomb and Schoolcraft Community Colleges both have courses set up for film production training, and the same with Washtenaw.
But, the most extensive program would probably be the one at OCC. "We started development of the program since the government announced incentives," Miller says. "Our goal is to get people to work and create relationships with the industry."
The program is run by S3 Entertainment production studio in Ferndale, with on-location classes taught by industry professionals. Since February, the program has trained over 100 people to work as production assistants, grips, and in the art, lighting, and camera production departments. According to Miller, former students are working on current projects such as The Irishman and the show The Wannabees.
The program consists of a two-week intro course, a two-week in-depth concentration course, and an internship.
"One of the biggest things is having the student understand that the film industry is not a 40-hour work week," Miller says. "It's not Monday through Friday. It can be a 60-hour week, a 120-hour week, and then no work for a month."
An evolving curriculum
Miller says she expects courses like these to start popping up in numbers as the industry takes more of a foothold in Michigan.
Of course it's hard to list all of the programs that are growing the Michigan workforce, and what makes community college more than those preconceived notions of slackers who can't hack it at a four-year institution.
But it really doesn't end with film programs and green technology courses. Henry Ford's biotech program is just one more example. The directory of biotechnology at Henry Ford, Jolie Stepaniak, says that the program – to begin in the fall – identified regional industries, asked them what they wanted in technicians, and developed labs and courses around their wants and needs.
Schoolcraft Community College hosts a nationally acclaimed culinary arts program with a restaurant to boot. And on their extended campus you can take courses in a growing program, not only at Schoolcraft, but in Michigan.
"Our Homeland Security program gives students the basis for understanding what homeland security is and what it encompasses. This is foundational right now, but we are going to expand," says Todd Scott, law enforcement instruction coordinator. "It's a growing industry, and will be a growing component of private sector security jobs."
Most of the students who pass through community college doors will inevitably transfer to four-year universities. But that's the point. The community college isn't, like Sawyer said, a standalone institution. It's just one part.
"Maybe we're not always the first choice," Whitmore says. "But we're a good choice. Community colleges aren't an ending. This is a beginning. Two years here isn't going to do it. But we'll get you on track to do it."
Terry Parris Jr. is the utility infielder for Metromode and its sister publications
Concentrate and Model D. His previous feature for Metromode was Can Immigration Loosen Our Rustbelt?