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Discussion: The Role of Community Colleges in Iowa

posted on March 17, 2008 at 10:15 AM

With us right now are two advocates of community colleges, first Robert Denson, the President of Des Moines Area Community College and Bob Mundt is with the Council Bluffs Chamber of Commerce. Welcome to both of you.

Both: Thanks, Todd.

Todd Mundt: No relation, at least as far as we're aware.

Bob Mundt: Not that we know.

Todd Mundt: We'll get that out of the way. As something of an outside observer but also a participant in the process here of community colleges and the way they interact with communities, what are your impressions on not only the impact of community colleges on economic development in Iowa, but also on the fabric of life in Iowa communities?

Bob Mundt: I think it's an alternative option for people going on with their education. From a community standpoint, they play a very active role in our community. I know with both economic development projects as well as community development projects, their faculty and staff are very involved in the community, their students are involved in the community. We want to make sure that we give them opportunities to stick around, because those are the types of folks that we want and we think we can use in our communities. So both academically and economically, they contribute a lot.

Todd Mundt: Rob, why do you think it is the community colleges enjoy this position of being such revered institutions in Iowa? There aren't a lot of institutions in the state that people feel happy about giving their tax money to. But it seems as though when it comes to the question of community colleges and funding Iowans, to the extent that they happily give money to support community colleges.

Denson: We're very serious about the importance of community in our name. We try to be in every community within our district. There are 15 community colleges, each designed to serve the citizens of its district directly. Our boards are locally elected to represent pieces of a district in a community college. So we feel we've really got a great pulse on what is happening.

Plus, every one of our programs has an advisory committee of businesspersons and others from the very businesses that hire our students. So we're very connected; we talk to groups, we're speaking all the time with every economic developer.

And the mayor knows that when it comes to growing a workforce or creating new jobs and bringing a new company in, the community college is always at the table. Because everything requires training. And we know that about 87.5% of the jobs between now and 2012 require only a two-year degree. As we look for more workers, we're really the ones that can deliver it very quickly.

Todd Mundt: Bob, how does that work in practice? Does it work in a situation where Google is looking at Council Bluffs or any other company where you find yourself sitting down at the table with the community college officials and talking about the kind of ways in which they can interact on the issues of training or job re-training?

Bob Mundt: Yeah, many times it's a two-way street. Not only does the company look for training opportunities at the college, but the college also looks for partnerships with the company to provide the most up-to-date technology and methods in order to train those workers. The street goes both ways, and I think that both benefit from that fact.

Todd Mundt: Rob, in this piece we heard about students who would not have an education after high school were it not for community colleges. We also heard a young guy say, you know, I could go anywhere I wanted to go and I've chosen to go to community college.

Community colleges serve a lot of different needs. That Iowa State study that showed, you know, 67% of these students are going on from community colleges to a four years school.

It seems like the field is changing in which community colleges operate. It's not just for students who are having trouble learning now. They certainly are there, but there are also students who are getting a leg up on higher education or for economic reasons are making the decision to start in community colleges. It must be having an impact on the kind of services that community colleges offer.

Denson: We're open to everyone. That is a piece of our legislation that created us. We're supposed to respond to all the needs of the community and the citizens that are there.

We see a dramatic change in the number of students coming to us. I know the piece talked about 87,000 students. Actually, if you look at the entire year, we serviced over 125,000 students in the community college system of all ages, from all aspects of life.

We're seeing a lot more students coming to DMACC and to the other community colleges in Iowa who could go anywhere. They've got good test scores, their families have the ability to send them anywhere, but they are coming to the community college because we teach in relatively small classes and we have support services.

You heard about the nursing help that Eastern Iowa Community College has at Muscatine, but all of us have what we call achievement centers, so that students who walk out of a class saying: I really didn't get that concept, they just walk down the hall into an achievement center that is free to them for free tutoring and advising. So we really do need to help them keep up to speed so they move on.

The Regents know that when our students leave us and go to a Regents institution, they do very well; they do as well if not better than students who started out at those four-year institutions. And four-year schools really want our students.

Two years ago we signed an agreement with Iowa State which they have now signed with several schools saying that a student that starts out at community college is automatically admitted to Iowa State if that is where they want to go. They get an Iowa State advisor, they can go to football games, basketball games, they can even live in the dorms. DMACC just last week signed a similar agreement with Drake and Grandview.

Simpson and Upper Iowa built facilities in Ankeny so that they could be there to receive students in DMACC that are coming out of a two-year program. So our faculty work very hard. Our staff are very attuned to the needs of our students. We want our students to go on and succeed. And I think the four-year institutions of Iowa have really recognized that. They want quality transfer students; they're going to get them from Iowa's community colleges.

Todd Mundt: Now, given the tremendous growth in the number of students of more than 100,000 who are impacted in some way by community colleges in the year does that challenge the infrastructure of the colleges to provide that, you know, specialized, focused education in the smaller classroom setting?

Denson: Well, we can manage the small classroom because that's how we build our buildings. Because we know that we need to stay small, whether it's a vocational program or an arts and science transfer class. We know that small is better, personalized is better.

But we're out of space at the Des Moines Area Community College, and it's true with most colleges in Iowa. We've got waiting lists as long as two, three and four years for students who want to wait to get into a very good program and these are Iowa students waiting in line to get into a program, to get into a job that is waiting for them right now. So our big challenge is space.

If we look into the future, with the shortage of workers of 150,000 in the next five or six years, 60,000 of those will be in central Iowa, we need to be recruiting all over the world. Because Iowa has that kind of a reputation as a hard working state. We solve problems and have a great quality of education.

So if we have the jobs, they will come. And if they come, we know that if they go to the community college, there's a high percentage that they'll stay in the state. I think on the average, about 90% of our graduates stay in the state when they graduate; DMACC is 96%.

There are great jobs here. It's a booming economy. Even in a national and global slow down, we see very good jobs here, and we have employers that want our graduates.

Todd Mundt: Does that mean you will go to the state and ask for more funding? Is that one of the keys in dealing with this issue of space?

Denson: Absolutely. The ability to build facilities, the special kind of levy that we have had access to, it hasn't been changed since 1966 when we were created. So yes, we are talking to the state. We've talked to the Governor; they understand the situation, and I know as soon as they can respond, they'll help us in that way.

Now, you've seen about six community colleges in the state have gone out and passed independent bond issues so that they could jump ahead with facilities. In fact, Iowa Wesleyan Community College just passed one these last few months.

So the voters understand the quality of what we do. And you are right, we are appreciated by the persons in our district. We just need to move forward so that we have the facilities, so that we have the trained workers when companies want to come to the state or our very good companies want to grow.

Todd Mundt: Bob, when you go out and talk to companies and you're trying to get them to come to Council Bluffs or you're trying to get them to locate nearby, how do you sell the community college as being part of that whole package that's available?

Bob Mundt: Yeah, absolutely we do. Again, the ongoing training that is in those community colleges is tremendous. We've been working with our community college right now, identifying the needs of the community and those people that are in the community. Those businesses that need those workers now, and trying to get those people trained and re-trained into those particular areas. So it's an ongoing effort for us, and we're just going to continue to work with community colleges to make that happen.

Denson: Let me add something quickly -- and we're seeing a change not only for the vocational but we're seeing many companies now who used to only hire only four-year grads.

Principal Financial is a very good example. They came to us a year ago and they said, you know what, we've got very good jobs that we believe could be done by a specifically trained two-year grad. They have partnered with our college and now high school students with a 3.3 grade point average and some leadership skills can be pre-screened by Principal, come to DMACC for two years and they are guaranteed a job at Principal paying somewhere between $35,000 and $42,000 a year in a very good job with good benefits. And then while the student goes and works for Principal, they can finish the last two years of a four-year degree paid for by Principal.

Accumold, a company in Ankeny, is the same way. They are pre-screening workers; they send them to DMACC, and they pay the tuition because they're really trying to get ahead of the workforce curve. And we can create new programs very quickly, certificate programs and specific skill competency programs in a matter of days, the academic programs a matter of weeks.

Todd Mundt: A matter of weeks?

Denson: A matter of weeks. The State Department of Education, we understand if we can't respond at the speed of light, businesses suffer. We're very entrepreneurial as a system. We understand that we don't need to make money, necessarily, but we need to break even because of the way we're funded. So we really move quickly to respond to business and industry.

And I think that is going to be our strength, as long as we focus on that. Because, again, the jobs are there; we just need to have the students come through our system.

Even with slow down such as Maytag or Pella Windows, these are all temporary. And as soon as they happen, there are groups all over the state that are saying: those are great workers; we want them on our floor. And, again, we help make that happen.

Todd Mundt: Bob, are there specific instances like that over in western Iowa where you've been able to work with the community college to very quickly get in and create programs?

Bob Mundt: Sure there are, we've got several industries, Griffin Pipe, for example, Google, you mentioned Google earlier. There's a lot of companies in and around some of the communities around us that also utilize Iowa Western Community College.

And I think you hit the nail on the head. There is an urgency in re-training. Technology is changing so quickly in our businesses and our industries that people that are being trained for something today will have to be re-trained a year from now in order to get into some of the new technology that is there. And so as technology continues to advance at a greater and greater clip, we need to be prepared to do that and so training and re-training of individuals is becoming more and more of what our community colleges are doing.

The four-year institutions, they are graduating some great people, great jobs, opportunities for those folks as well. But they are going to need to be re-trained as well at some point in the future, and so community colleges I think are going to have that role. That as we continue to evolve and our technology continues to evolve, that type of training is going to be taken over a lot by the community colleges and by those institutions within those organizations that are going to keep people up to speed.

Todd Mundt: Creating a new competitive environment even for the businesses themselves, they have to provide quality jobs to people. Because people have new opportunities to re-train and move onto something else pretty quickly, actually.

Bob Mundt: Very much so. I think companies are starting to realize that if they want to retain their employees, they need to re-train their employees. And so those jobs, they need to make sure that any advances are open to their employees, or those employees are going to move somewhere else where they know that they can get the training, that they can advance. People want to know new things, they want to be better at doing things. And so our companies need to realize that.

Todd Mundt: Just a couple of minutes left. There is the potential of a recession around the corner. We don't know if it will happen. Iowa often lags the rest of the country, so even if it hits, it may be a while before it gets to us. But how does the importance of the community college in the community change in a time of recession? I'll start with you, Rob.

Denson: Generally in any slow down in the economy, we receive more students, because there are more people they may be displaced in one way or another. So they want to go back to the community college, pick up their skills and move onto another job. As a general rule, most of them say it was a good thing when it's all done, because they get a skill upgrade, they move into a better job sometimes with a greater future. So even though there is an additional period of turmoil, in the end it usually works out for the best. And so it really is kind of a fun process to watch.

But, again, we're going to be testing the market all the time to see where are the new jobs going to come from. We're partnered very closely with business and industry, so we know what their needs are going to be. And we start shifting our training as some company may be going down or some industry. We look for the industries that are strong.

Manufacturing is extremely strong in this state. 24% of Iowa's gross state product; we're number two in the nation as far as per capita use of manufacturing as a part of gross state product. It's a great economy right now. I hope we slow very slowly, and I think there are a lot of signs that we're going to do very well. We're surely going to be a good partner, and we have great partnerships.

I talked about working with business. We partner well with the K-12 system. We generate a lot of college credits to high school students who need to be challenged maybe in their junior or senior year to get more rigor, to get a jump on their college career.

We just had Harvey Siegelman and Dan Otto, economists, look at the economic impact of our high school programs. They tested the 27,000 students in 2005 that took college credit in high school. It cost the state $10 million, but it saved the state $21 million in future state costs and saved the parents $31 million and with a 575% return on investment. Again, these are students that are being challenged, they're going to move onto a four-year institution and do very, very well.

Todd Mundt: Just a few seconds left, about 20 seconds left. Some thoughts again or final thoughts about community colleges and their importance.

Bob Mundt: Well, I think they're going to continue to play an important role in the evolution of our communities. Not just in Council Bluffs but the area around Council Bluffs as well. Those companies are going to continue to take advantage of the flexibility of those community colleges, and we're going to continue to take advantage of them in our recruiting of these new businesses and industries as well.

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