HANCEVILLE, Ala. — Community colleges in Alabama prepare workers for almost 75 percent of the jobs in the state, yet receive only 24 percent of the funding from the budget set aside for higher education. Combined with competition to attract and keep faculty, tuition increases that prevent those who need an education most from attending college, and an aging infrastructure, the two-year college system experiences increasing operational uncertainty.
Wallace State Community College President Dr. Vicki Karolewics is hoping to even the scales a bit. She and Chancellor Mark Heinrich met with a group of state legislators recently to share with them the statistics about the available workforce in the state, the two-year college system and its importance in the development of a properly trained workforce, and how a more equitable funding ratio would help the system reach potential students who are currently underserved in the state.
Focusing on middle-skill jobs, Karolewics pointed out that 60 percent of the jobs in the state are considered middle-skill jobs, which are jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. Called “Alabama’s Forgotten Middle”, these jobs make up the majority of Alabama and America’s labor market. Unfortunately, key industries in the state targeted for further growth by the Governor’s Accelerate Alabama plan report challenges in find enough sufficiently trained workers to fill those jobs. Combined with low-skill jobs, 74 percent of the jobs in Alabama are the types of jobs for which community and technical colleges train their students.
“While we are looking forward to 2020s projected growth in middle-skill jobs in Alabama, 75 percent of the higher education funding goes to the universities to train for 29 percent of the jobs in the state of Alabama,” Karolewics said. “Whereas 24 percent of the higher education budget goes to train for 71 percent of the jobs that we’ll be needing. As Alabama targets growth in aerospace and automotive manufacturing as well as healthcare, are we as a state properly aligning our funding to assure we meet the projected workforce demand?” Karolewics asked.
Karolewics said the state of Alabama is investing a mere $2,857 per Alabama student in the community college system, compared to $7,893 in the university system. Yet, the Alabama Community College System educates 55 percent of all first-time freshman coming out of high school, 41 percent of all Alabamians enrolled and 35 percent of all students, including out-of-state students served in Alabama’s higher education system.
According to a recent study of the ACCS compiled by MDC in North Carolina, since 2008, state appropriations for community colleges have declined by 40 percent, causing the colleges to raise tuition by $1,000 per student to compensate for a portion of that loss in funding. Another $1,000 per student would be needed to make up that shortfall, Karolewics said. “And that is to the state’s poorest families,” she said. “Making Alabama one of the least affordable systems in comparison to others in the South. The median annual tuition in the nation is $3,000, whereas it’s $3,945 in Alabama. We really are pricing ourselves out of the ability to serve the students who need to be served most, those that are going to fill those middle-skill jobs.”
The decline in funding has also prevented the system from providing raises to its employees for several years, leaving it vulnerable to losing employees to higher paying jobs in K-12, university systems and industry.
Legislators attending the meeting included Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman; Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur; Rep. Mac Buttram, R-Cullman; Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview; and Rep. David Standridge, R-Hayden. Newly elected Rep. Corey Harbison was also in attendance.
The legislators agreed something needs to be done to help provide a better workforce for business and industry in Alabama before the situation reaches the point where it discourages new industries from locating in the state and/or forces others to move away.
Sen. Bussman said when he heard that Boeing was considering Alabama as a location for a new plant he didn’t think the state had a viable shot at getting the plant in the first place. But when he learned they would need 8,000 employees, he questioned the state’s ability to provide those workers.
Chancellor Heinrich said representatives of industries recently sought him out at air shows overseas. “They wanted to talk with somebody from the Alabama Community College System because they are looking at increasing what they put here,” he said. They wanted to know what the state was doing to increase its workforce.
“Those kinds of companies want to locate here and we’ve got to give them an excuse to come,” he said.
“This is the No. 1 issue right now, is workforce,” the Chancellor added. “We’ve got to convince them that we’re going to produce the workforce for them to be successful.”