Gadsden State, other community colleges see their training mandate affected by budget cuts
by Patrick McCreless
Mar 21, 2013 | 5070 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Barney Crow of McLeod Electrical Inc. uses an electric grinder to cut pipe out of a building that will be renovated into a classroom at Gadsden State Community College Ayers campus. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
Barney Crow of McLeod Electrical Inc. uses an electric grinder to cut pipe out of a building that will be renovated into a classroom at Gadsden State Community College Ayers campus. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
Enrollment at Gadsden State is shrinking alongside federal grant funding, education officials report, a problem throughout the Alabama community college system that could weaken future state workforce development.

An audit released last week for Gadsden State, which has campuses in Anniston and McClellan, shows the community college’s federal grant funding decreased by millions of dollars between 2011 and 2012, about $4.4 million less for Pell grants alone.

Fewer students have been able to afford Gadsden State as a result, with 5,477 enrolled there this spring semester compared to 6,315 enrolled during the the same semester last year. Meanwhile, community colleges throughout the state have faced similar enrollment declines, meaning fewer high-skilled workers will be available, potentially lessening the state’s ability to lure in industry, education and economic development experts say.

According to the audit, in addition to a reduction funding for the the federal student-assistance Pell grant program, Gadsden State had a $1.69 million reduction in scholarship allowance, an approximately $2.2 million reduction in federal grants and contracts and a $165,515 cut in state and local grants.

“That affects enrollment,” Raymond Staats, president of Gadsden State, said of the cuts. “We’re trying to do a little more with less.”

No academic services were cut due to the funding decreases, Staats said.

The Pell grant program was readjusted last year, limiting students to just 12 full-time semesters of aid in their lifetime. As a result, many students are finding trouble making ends meet, said Mark Heinrich, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System. Heinrich said Pell grants are a major source of support for many community college students.

“It caught many of our students off-guard,” Heinrich said of the Pell grant cuts.

Heinrich said enrollment is down between 2 percent and 5 percent through the state community college system.

“Some of that is a result of the job market improving and students going back to work,” Heinrich said. “But many of our students are older, they’ve got families and lives to deal with and can’t afford to go to college without help.”

The ability of community colleges to train in welding, electronics robotics and other high-level skills is an important part of economic development in the state, Heinrich said.

“So I’d be lying if I said the cuts will not have a negative impact on workforce development,” he said.

Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, which is tasked with spearheading economic development in the state, agreed.

“We often look to the community college system as a primary driving force in the development of career education and technical education necessary for students to enter the workforce,” Canfield said.

Canfield said he was concerned about the effect cuts to Pell grant funding could have on workforce development, adding that having a skilled workforce is a key part of Accelerate Alabama, the state’s strategic plan for economic development.

To counteract the drop in student enrollment, Gadsden State is working to expand its programs and services, making the community college more enticing, Staats said.

Gadsden State recently began renovation work on an old building at the Ayers campus in Anniston to house a new electronics lab.

“Electronics is not a new program, but we’re upgrading and increasing capacity ... to get more students,” Staats said.

The project will cost $729,400 and is the first major upgrade project at Ayers Campus in about a decade, Staats said.

“And we are looking at starting up new programs ... from agriculture to law enforcement to hospitality to landscaping,” Staats said. “It’s quite the laundry list.”

Heinrich said the community college system in general is attempting to expand different services, such as its private-public partnership program that allows students to work part time in an industry they are training for in class.

“That helps a good number of our students,” Heinrich said.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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