Making a case for higher education in rural America

6/17/2014

A recent article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, a critically acclaimed magazine and national source of news for college and university faculty members and administrators, addressed an issue that hits home right here in southwest Kansas. The article, "The Good That Community Colleges Do, Part 2," written by columnist and associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, Rob Jenkins, seeks to defend the significance and importance of the contributions community colleges make in today's American economy. It cites a somewhat irritated reader who commented "that there is such little understanding of the value and opportunity provided...by community colleges."

Jenkins goes on to write, "The truth is, much of what community colleges do is difficult to measure empirically and must therefore be explained to key stakeholders like state education officials, legislators and policy makers." As president of Garden City Community College, I would add that America's rural community colleges are a critical component of their local economies, regional cultural centers for the arts, and a significant source of community services.

Although these conclusions are obvious to many community college administrators and faculty, there is growing support at the state and national levels to vastly reduce funding to the operating budgets of these centers of educational opportunity.

Garden City Community College recently had the pleasure of hosting the June conference of the Kansas Association of Community College Trustees. Representatives from all 19 Kansas community colleges attended as well as honored guest, Frank Mensel, Senior Fellow at the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

Mensel commented on the challenges currently facing many community colleges and the potential consequences of failing to meet these challenges:

Community colleges are being asked to do more with less, and, in many states, our community colleges are bursting at the seams and in desperate need of funds for new and renovated facilities. If you shortchange the community colleges due to inadequate funding as compared to their mission, you are undermining the economic future of our nation.

A native of Provo, Utah and professional journalist, Dr. Mensel made a career of representing community colleges in national affairs for more than four decades, and was the moving force behind the support of Sen. Claiborne Pell in the 1972 enactment of the Pell Grant.

Originally titled the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, the Pell Grant has served more than five times the number of students than the nation's most notable legislation, the Montgomery GI Bill that followed WWII.

A recent study presented to the White House Rural Council & the U.S. Department of Education Feb. 12, 2014, provides a synopsis of a two-part study of federal student financial aid, notably the Pell Grant, across Kansas community colleges. "The Power of Pell: An Investment with Returns" was conducted by Garden City Community College and developed in association with Deanna D. Mann, GCCC director of institutional research. Dr. Mensel also played a key role in the study as well as the original research conducted in 2012.

The study analyzes the impact the Pell Grant has had nationally, in the state of Kansas, and to our local community. The findings show that, of the more than $33 billion in Pell Grant expenditures for 2011-2012, approximately one-third went to public two-year colleges. In addition, no state is more representative of rural America than Kansas in that 16 of the 19 community colleges are recognized as "rural serving" and more than half of the college credit being earned in the 16 Kansas rural colleges is going to Pell Grant recipients. Further results of the study include:

* Rural colleges put college opportunity and lifelong learning, including higher job skills, within reach of farm families that otherwise would find such opportunity beyond their reach.

* Pell Grants, now in their fifth decade, give rural students limitless options in higher education through community colleges, which also serve local employers and workers in job training needs.

* Community colleges are increasingly recognized as the colleges of lifelong learning, most surely in rural communities.

* The combination of the Pell Grant and the community college is a growing engine of both undergraduate access and workforce development, with women on a trajectory to become as much the majority of the workforce as they are of the population, if not more.

For southwest Kansans, it is important to note that close to 70 percent of GCCC students are earning college credits from funds specifically received from Pell Grants. As stated by Mensel, "Pell Grants are the lifeblood of rural community colleges."

Previous studies have shown that more that $6 million in taxable income is being added to the Kansas economy each year because of GCCC. Also, though many community colleges are struggling to stay afloat, GCCC is among just three of 19 in Kansas showing positive growth.

In conclusion, my goal in sharing the results of these studies with you is to affirm the economic contributions GCCC makes to the southwest Kansas community by detailing the role that the college plays in promoting economic development, enhancing students' careers and improving quality of life. As a native Kansan, and president of this fine institution, I am incredibly proud to be a part of the success and growth of our state, our youth and our future. Thank you for your continued support of our great college and remember, from here, you can go anywhere!

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