The education and skills training provided by the community colleges across the state is equally important in an economic downturn and recovery as workers seek to retrain and students seek the skills they will need to fill jobs in North Carolina – jobs that will likely look very different than those available just five years ago. Although the House budget restored some of the cuts to the community college system made in last year’s biennial budget, it still leaves the system funded at 3.8 percent below pre-recession levels . This means that our state’s community colleges have still fewer resources available to implement the evidence-based programs needed to support North Carolina’s economic recovery.
The House budget’s partial restoration of the management flexibility reduction by $4.3 million represents just 5% of the total reduction in this category slated for FY2012-2013. If this budget were to pass as-is, the community college system would still need to find cuts equivalent to $83 million. On a more positive note, the upcoming $5 fee increase for continuing education was also eliminated, keeping these courses more accessible to students.
Unfortunately, the tuition increases included in last year’s biennial budget remain in place, and next year the cost per credit hour will rise by another $2.50 to $69. As BTC has written before, community college tuition has already increased  58% since FY2008-09. Rising tuition for students can become a barrier to achieving educational goals, especially for low-income and adult students.
It is interesting to note that the community colleges project a decline in enrollment next year by 1.1%, and as such receive a reduction in funding for enrollment growth of $12 million. The decline in enrollment at a time when unemployment remains high could be in part driven by higher tuition as well as the increasing challenges that long-term unemployed workers as they lose the supports to stay in training programs and connected to the labor market.
For this reason, it’s important that House budget writers recognized the need to tailor training programs to the long-term unemployed and establish the Back to Work program. This program, which would provide retraining for new careers, appears to maintain a particular focus on credentials  – an important component to the career pathway model  that North Carolina should strive to bring to scale. Unfortunately, the House budget would fund this program with $10 million in one-time money. It remains to be seen if a single year’s investment can truly address the challenges for workers facing a persistent shortage of jobs in the midst of significant economic transformation. Even most uncertain is whether one-time funding is sufficient to build a pathway program that can connect workers and employers for long-term economic growth.
The connection between the community college system and economic development is critically important, and making sure that colleges are effectively educating and training workers in new and expanded skills is important, too. The House budget’s special provisions note changes that will be made to performance measures and accountability funding to put in place concrete measures of student’s progress and success in various programs. Performance measures and funding  are an important tool to understand our progress in preparing workers for the jobs of the future, but instituting those measures requires robust data systems, effective bridge, developmental and job training programs, student supports, and more in order to support individual student – and widespread economic – success. And that requires adequate state investments, something that the House budget falls short of.