With a balanced state budget still beyond lawmakers’ grasp, a community college student, an administrator, a business leader and legislators pleaded last week for more funding for the seven-campus system, saying the state is failing to address surging demand by prospective students.
A bill before the Appropriations Committee seeks a one-time funding increase of $15 million to the Maine Community College System to eliminate the backlog of students awaiting entrance to college degree programs.
The $15 million would be in addition to the $11.7 million Gov. John Baldacci has proposed in his two-year budget, supporters said.
Supporters of Rep. Lawrence Bliss’ bill pointed to a 47 percent enrollment increase since the system was inaugurated in 2003, while state appropriations have increased by only 10 percent.
“Maine people deserve access to the community colleges and all the opportunity they provide,” said Bliss, D-South Portland. “We need to keep that promise, not turn people away.”
A student at Southern Maine Community College, who said his education “literally transformed my life” and “opened doors to me,” said he also feared prospects of turning other students away.
“We are saying we don’t care. We need to care,” said the student, Eric Adams.
Others said specialized training offered by the community colleges are closely linked to state economic growth. Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said 4,200 jobs in the state that require specialized training the community colleges can provide are now going unfilled because the schools can’t take more students.
“The need is there, the justification is there. We simply lack the investment,” Connors told a news conference prior to a scheduled afternoon hearing on Bliss’ bill.
In southern Maine, York County Community College should be enrolling more than 4,000 students but only has a capacity for 1,000, said Sen. Peter Bowman, a Kittery Democrat and one of 75 co-sponsors of the bill.
Statewide, Maine lags the New England average in the rate of residents with college degrees. The community college system says 96 percent of the system’s first-year students are Maine residents, and 95 percent of its graduates are placed in jobs or resume schooling. Nearly 26,000 people were enrolled in degree and non-degree programs in 2005-06.
A bipartisan caucus of lawmakers from rural areas has signed on in support of Bliss’ bill, saying increased funding for the community colleges “is critical to our economy.”
Finding the money for the increased funding will not be easy, supporters acknowledged.
“I’m no fan of tax increases,” said Bliss. But he said he will support a 75 cent-per-pack increase in the state cigarette tax Democrats are backing to pay for the community college funding he seeks.
– Associated Press
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