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Obama's community college plan earns wary cheers from local school presidents

By Glenn Evans
Feb. 14, 2012 at 10 p.m.

The heads of area community colleges reacted with varying degrees of optimism Tuesday to President Barack Obama's proposal to help their students get high-end job training.

Obama on Monday announced he would include an $8 billion fund to train community college students for high-growth jobs as part of his 2012-13 budget. The spending plan is in the hands of Congress.

The community college element in the plan is aimed at students who might opt for well-paying jobs after earning one-year certifications and two-year associate degrees.

Those fields include welding, nursing, computer-assisted design and medical record-keeping.

"Of course, I'm in favor of the country investing in community colleges in the country," Panola College President Greg Powell said. "We can spend this money on community college pursuits for educating the workforce, and I think it will pay dividends for generations to come."

Powell noted a federal infusion sent the Greatest Generation to college under the post World War II GI Bill, " ...and vaulted so many people into the middle class."

The 200 students in Panola College's petroleum tech program can anticipate a $65,000-a-year job.

"And that's in a two-year technical program," Powell said. "I think that is exactly what the president is looking at. He's looking at those training programs where you can enter the job market and hit the ground running."

Kilgore College President Bill Holda, whose trustees reacted to news of lower state aid by hiking tuition the same day of Obama's proposal, agreed that community colleges are doing more with less.

"There's no question it's badly needed," Holda said. "But, truthfully, I think the state has a responsibility to do some of that and not just the feds. And the state has abrogated its function. The state's not even covering 50 cents on the dollar of what it costs to fund instruction, so we end up doing it in fees."

Holda said it's up to the customers of community colleges, local employers, to nudge the state to correct those deficiencies.

"Sooner or later, the business community is going to have to get up on its hind legs and demand instruction," he said.

Brad Johnson, president of Northeast Texas Community College, was wary of federal strings attached to the president's proposal.

"That's where I would want to know a lot more than I know now before I can see if I am supportive of the proposal," Johnson said. "I'm very appreciative that the president recognizes the scope of the challenges we face at community colleges and the importance of a workforce to get our economy going. I'm concerned about the federal government taking a bigger role in what I see as state and local responsibilities."

Johnson said the Mount Pleasant-based college opened its Industrial Training Center in March through a state, local and private financial partnership. The center offers a nine-month curriculum.

"We were able to very quickly open a state-of-the art training center," Johnson said. "And we already have graduates out the door and employed and working."



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