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Local Community College Leaders Respond To State Of The Union, Prepare Students For Workforce

Provided | Southwestern Illinois College
The Liberal Arts Building at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, Illinois

During the State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama called on community colleges to build stronger partnerships with local businesses.  And according to St. Louis-area community college leaders, many of those initiatives are already in place on their campuses.

“We’ve been doing exactly what our president just said the other night, and actually I think we’ve been doing it extremely well,” Southwestern Illinois College President Georgia Costello said. The college has campuses in Belleville, Granite City and Red Bud. “We do have business partners. We do listen to our business partners in our areas, the local communities that we serve."

The proof, said Costello, is that when the students leave with certificates or degrees after two years, "they walk out into a job.”

What the colleges could use, however, is targeted funding, said St. Louis Community College Interim Chancellor Dennis Michaelis.

“Any time the president makes a pronouncement that is emphasizing the importance of workforce training, that helps us all,” Michaelis said. “At the same time though, it is easy to provide very general kinds of support, and the devil is in the details, as they say. It’s a matter of targeting those dollars so we’re really meeting the needs of the students.”

Because each community’s workforce needs are unique, the funding needs to be flexible enough to adapt to those needs, Michaelis said.

One aspect that makes southwest Illinois unique is its proximity to Scott Air Force Base. According to Costello, Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC) has the largest military student population in Illinois with 1,800 active duty and veterans enrolled and another 900 military dependents.

Affordable, targeted training

At a time when the cost of college continues to rise, community college is relatively affordable. SWIC costs $108 a credit hour and St. Louis Community College (STLCC ) costs $98 a credit hour for district residents and $144 for other Missouri residents. In comparison, undergraduate tuition is $315.80 a credit hour at University of Missouri-St. Louis and $1,260 a credit hour for part-time students at Saint Louis University.

According to Costello, 54 percent of SWIC students go on to a four-year college. The remaining 46 percent receive certificates and degrees that can lead to better-paying jobs in their communities, such as paramedic or welder. Both Michaelis and Costello emphasized the ability of their institutions to adapt to the workforce needs of their communities

Yet, despite the lower tuition and targeted training of community colleges, enrollment at both colleges is down – by almost a quarter at STLCC and just a percent or two at SWIC. Enrollment in community colleges is down across the country, Michaelis said.

When asked why more students don’t enroll, Michaelis said, “It’s always been one of the great mysteries to me. If the instruction is going to be even just the same, why would you pay a lot more money?...I think a lot of it has to do frankly with marketing.”

Graduate with diploma and associate degree

As part of an effort to expand their reach, SWIC recently expanded its dual-enrollment program to allow local high school students to graduate high school with both a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree at SWIC. Now in its pilot year, the SWIC Running Start program already has 800 students enrolled, Costello said.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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