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Community colleges need support from legislators

As chair for the Clackamas Community College Board of Education, I am gratified to see that The Oregonian recognizes the contributions community colleges make in the academic achievement and workforce readiness of Oregon's population.

I have been surprised' however, to see recent comments from elected officials that don't acknowledge that contribution.

I have known Sen. Kurt Schrader for more than 10 years. I have great respect for his hard work and commitment, but that doesn't mean we see eye-to-eye on every subject.

We do agree on one salient point: Higher education funding is in need of a major overhaul. We agreed with this position in each of the last three legislative sessions. We agreed to wait while lawmakers promise that next time, community colleges will receive adequate funding.

Community colleges cut positions and classes to avoid raising tuition. We were finally forced to make the increase to continue providing responsive workforce training and academic programs. It is difficult to reconcile being criticized for raising tuition when state support has shrunk since 2002.

The picture that is being painted of community colleges is misleading. Do we offer classes of 15 students? Sure we do. Nursing, for example, has a state mandated maximum ratio of nine students per faculty member in clinical classes. Welding can handle 18 students, with one lab assistant and one faculty member. Do we have enough high-end equipment to expand many of our professional/ technical classes to serve 30 students? We do not.

Our math, English and other academic transfer classes are comparable to the K-12 classroom sizes. In some cases, courses are kept small to serve the needs of students that have not had success in high school and cannot succeed in a large lecture hall environment. When other systems offer workforce education, new programs in response to business demands, and evening, weekend and online courses, then we can compare apples to apples.

Perhaps, instead of being criticized for having smaller class sizes, community colleges should be looked to as models for developing successful teaching and learning strategies.

To respond to another misunderstanding, our community education classes are not subsidized by state reimbursement. So, through the community college system, residents in communities can take painting, dog obedience, gymnastics, aerobics and yes, basket weaving. Those courses are market-driven and self-supporting. If there is no demand by fee-paying patrons, there is no course.

We cannot continue to strip away resources from a system that is a true investment in the state's future. Community colleges serve three times the number of students as the state's universities, yet receive about half their per-student funding.

The most elementary equation shows what happens under the funding suggestion set forth by the co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee: cut state funding to community colleges. Force community colleges to raise tuition. Price students out of higher education. Watch enrollment decline.

Now we see a trend toward funding based on this declining enrollment, which puts us in a Catch-22. We cannot serve our current and future students - or the economic well being of our state - by not investing in our most accessible educational system.

I ask citizens who have been served by community colleges to contact your legislators. Forcing the largest institutions of higher education in the state to wait until the Legislature comes up with an educational funding strategy hurts our families and the many, many businesses and industries that count on us to provide trained workers.

Oregon should never be a state where only the wealthier among us can have an education.

By undermining community colleges, that's exactly where we're headed.

Ron Adams is the chair of the Clackamas Community College Board of Education. He has been a state representative from West Linn for six years.