Union Democrat staff

"Can community colleges save the U.S. economy?"

That was the question posed by a story in the July 20 edition of Time Magazine.

The article details a major, Obama-administration public relations campaign aimed at boosting the nation's 1,200 two-year colleges. With a wealth of vocational education programs that can lead students directly to jobs, the community colleges may be in line for millions of dollars in stimulus-fund aid.

So things are all roses out at Columbia College, right?

Not exactly, says Joan Smith, Columbia's president. "We've always done our part for the economy and we will continue to do so," she said. "But the bottom line is that we can't be saving the economy when our own funding is being cut to the bone."

Columbia's reality is this: Enrollment rose by more than 8 percent in the school year that just ended, edging toward 4,000, but state funding assumed only a 2 percent gain. This year, with even more students expected to register, the college will get no extra enrollment funding and may lose state funds formerly assured by Proposition 98.

Bottom line: more students, less money. Except in the case of community education courses, which have been cut due to low enrollment and lack of money.

And the likelihood of stimulus cash? "The federal government moves slowly," said Smith. "Right now, it's nothing we can count on."

All that said, Columbia remains an attractive educational option. Although retiring instructors have not been replaced, a full array of educational and vocational classes will be offered for the fall semester, beginning Aug. 31.

But register early, advises Smith, because once classes are full the college does not have enough manpower to offer additional sections, as it has in the past.

"It's not an enrollment cap," said Smith, "but if students can't get the classes they want, it could amount to one."

Early registrants, however, can pick from hundreds of classes at a cost of a little more than $2,000 a semester (including books and supplies). This is about a 10th what many four-year schools charge. Not only that, but Columbia students will enjoy a spectacularly beautiful campus highlighted by brand-new buildings funded by Measure E, a 2004 bond issue that is funding more than $50 million in on-campus construction.

Next month, the school will celebrate completion of the $3.4 million Mahogany Building, which will house auto-body repair and welding technology programs, and begin work on its $22 million Science and Natural Resources Building. Already completed are a $2.8 million Public Safety Center and a $9.1 million Child Development Center.

Talk about saving the economy: These projects over four years have thrown millions of dollars into Tuolumne County's economy and created scores of jobs in the otherwise flat building industry. And in many of these completed buildings, students will learn skills that may qualify them for jobs.

Part of the Obama Administration's community college initiative is hiking graduation rates, which now hover near 30 percent nationwide. But Smith, who says Columbia's rate is in the same neighborhood, doesn't see the urgency.

She pointed out that to many students a job is more important than a diploma, and they leave college once they've earned a required certificate or complete necessary coursework for employment. Other students transfer to four-year schools after completing the junior college units needed, and if those units don't yield a Columbia diploma it's hardly a dealbreaker.

"Are we really going to say that these kinds of students are not successful?" Smith asked.

A local answer to that national question that Time has posed: Columbia College has done more than its share in keeping our economy afloat in hard times. And if the state's funding crisis is ever resolved, it will do better yet.