April was National Community College Month, a time when we focus attention on the many ways in which community colleges contribute to the educational, economic and social health of our society.
Over the past four years, the economic crisis has driven many students to community and technical colleges to learn new skills or to get an affordable start on a four-year degree. Increasingly, community colleges are taking the lead in training skilled workers for jobs in the global economy. The Obama administration recognizes the vital role played by community colleges and has proposed increased funding to support our efforts.
Although community colleges have a much higher profile than they did a few years ago, institutions like New River that serve rural communities still face daunting challenges. I recently had the opportunity to attend a meeting at the White House with officials from the Obama administration and the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Education, and Health and Human Services to convey the unique challenges rural two-year colleges face, as well as to highlight our importance to local economic development.
The visit was organized by the Rural Community College Alliance, a national organization which I am honored to serve as vice chair. The Alliance works to raise awareness of and provide resources for rural community colleges, which enroll one-third of all community college students and make up over 53 percent of community colleges nationwide.
At the top of the list of issues discussed in Washington was funding for community colleges. Like most states, West Virginia has not significantly increased funding for its 10 community and technical colleges in recent years, despite significant enrollment growth. As a result, although New River has almost doubled in enrollment since 2007, our annual appropriation from the Legislature has remained almost flat, meaning that we continue to be at the bottom of the list in terms of per capita funding. This year, the Legislature did appropriate additional funds to New River and other community colleges to address some of the more critical needs. We are grateful for that support and for the fiscal responsibility demonstrated by our lawmakers, as we have not suffered the budget cuts so common in other states.
The funding question is further complicated for rural community colleges like New River because we are not always able to access funding even when it is available. There are some grants for which community colleges can apply to fund various projects, from infrastructure to academics and training, but we are often at a disadvantage because we don’t have the expertise to apply for grants. While some suburban and urban colleges have teams of grant writers, many rural colleges often must pool resources to hire a grant writer or, more likely, an administrator or dean may take on writing the grant proposal. We also do not have a large development office staff to pursue private funds. As a result, most of what we do is done on a shoestring.
In addition to discussing funding issues, our delegation also had a special meeting with senior White House policy staff and the White House Rural Council staff to talk about the specific challenges and opportunities that are unique to rural community colleges. The discussion included Pell Grants, Federal Student Financial Aid, educating allied health professionals, the growing trend of population shifts in rural America and the huge shift of funding away from the states and onto the local communities and counties.
The highlight of our visit was a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The MOU between the USDA and the Rural Community College Alliance will serve as a template of communication and cooperation between the two groups. The MOU will provide a direct link between our college and the many programs, loans and grants offered by the USDA. We appreciate the fact that the USDA recognizes and understands the important work that rural colleges are doing in our communities and regions. This is the first time the USDA has entered into an agreement like this with an organization of higher education institutions.
Rural community colleges are often the drivers of economic and workforce development along with being an academic institution, so they are so vital in a rural community. This is the first time rural higher education administrators have visited the White House as a group. Since policy makers in Washington are often not from rural areas, they don’t understand our lifestyle or the challenges facing rural America and our rural institutions of higher education. These important meetings gave us an invaluable opportunity to be able to provide them with insight into the wonderful work that New River and our fellow rural community colleges are doing.
New River is committed to serving students throughout our nine-county service area which includes some of the most rural and remote sections of West Virginia. Through innovative ideas like the One Room University in Marlinton, we are finding ways to take our programs to students who otherwise would not have the opportunity to continue their education beyond high school. By offering technical programs such as line service mechanic, welding, CDL and weatherization technology, we are providing affordable training for good-paying jobs available right here in West Virginia. Despite the challenges we face in serving such a large and mostly rural region, we receive tremendous support in our communities. Your support is helping us build an institution that is becoming a model for other rural community colleges across the state and the nation.
(Spring is president of New River Community and Technical College.)