By BRIDGET BUSH
Capital News Service
LANSING– Some students could pay cheaper community college tuition if lawmakers approve a change in state law before the end of the year.
What’s more, some employers could get better access to community college job training programs under legislation the Senate is poised to take up.
It would give voters in counties that don’t border community college districts the chance to approve joining a district.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Amanda Price, R-Park Township, could be voted on by the Senate Education Committee as early as Tuesday.
Co-sponsors include Reps. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids; Philip Potvin, R-Cadillac; Ken Yonker, R-Caledonia; Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville; and Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.
If the bill, which won unanimous House approval, becomes law, the decision to annex would be left up to the board of the community college district and the voters requesting annexation.
“This expands the net to students who are geographically or financially place-bound,” said Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.
The benefits would reach beyond the 43 percent of the state’s population between the ages of 18 to 24 who are enrolled in college or graduate school, supporters say.
“This bill is just as much about supporting opportunities for business growth as it is an investment in young people’s futures,” said Kevin Stotts, president of the Grand Rapids-based Talent 2025 Coalition, an organization of chief executives from West Michigan communities that promote talent development in the region.
“There’s a real threat that employers could move to other parts of the country where community colleges are more available and affordable for their workers,” Stotts said. Without talent, employers won’t expand but look to relocate, he said.
Herman Miller, a furniture manufacturer, and Haworth, a sheet metal contractor, are two employers in Grand Rapids interested in training employees through community college programs, Stotts said.
“It’s an investment in communities’ long-term economic viability, opposed to a cost with no widespread benefit,” Stotts said.
Western Michigan is not the only region that would reap rewards from the bill, according to Stotts.
About 25 percent of Michigan’s population lives outside of community college districts, Hansen said. If they could join nearby districts, they would avoid the higher tuition charged to out-of-district students.
For students living in Holland, for example, who are pursuing higher education, the surrounding districts give them three out-of-district options: Muskegon Community College, Montcalm Community College and Grand Rapids Community College.
“Holland isn’t the only community that would benefit,” said Dale Nesbary, president of Muskegon Community College. Officials in Presque Isle and Livingston counties seek annexation to a nearby district, he said. Other communities could follow.
About 25 percent of Michigan residents live in community college districts with an associated property tax.
Hansen said the cost of out-of-district tuition is still a roadblock for many students considering a post-secondary degree.
Time and legislative support deterred Holland from establishing its own community college years ago, said Randy Schipper, a member of the West Ottawa Board of Education and the Destination Education Board, which makes post-secondary education more achievable for low-income, minority and first-year students.
The Legislature was thought unlikely to approve another community college then, he said.
“On top of that, Ottawa County is too small to offer some of the programs Grand Rapids Community College and Muskegon Community College have,” Schipper said. Holland is the largest city without a community college in the state.
That’s why there’s a great advantage to a regional approach, he said.
The bill would allow for cheaper and better programs for residents in communities where it doesn’t make sense to start their own community college, Schipper said.
“Our college alone enrolls about 1,000 students from outside of the county,” Nesbary said. “This bill would provide more outreach to more students.”
He said he expects those numbers to rise if more students qualify for cheaper tuition.
Schipper said he’s optimistic that the new option could double out-of-district enrollment, assuming residents vote to annex themselves to the district where tuition is half the cost.
Nesbary said he’s not concerned about his college losing money. In fact, community colleges would receive part of the property taxes in a newly annexed region, and he said that would balance out any dip in tuition revenue.
Advocates say a property tax increase is a small price for a great return for their communities.
Stotts said, “Employers are struggling to find a skilled workforce. Community colleges play a critical role in bridging that gap by developing training programs that meet the needs of local businesses.”
These are niche positions that pay good wages and salaries, he said.
And Schipper said that while big employers have been strongly behind this bill, small mom-and-pop businesses could benefit most.
For example, a Traverse City tent manufacturer worked with its community college to put a training program together, doubling its workforce by adding just four employees.
“That might not seem like a lot, but to a small business it makes a huge difference,” Hansen said.
“I know of one business that hires from Kent County instead of Ottawa County because they can get them trained for cheaper,” Schipper said. “Another businessman has told me he has a plant in another part of the country that he might begin shifting operations to because he can’t find the talent he needs here.”
Hansen said that when an employer doesn’t have a community college to develop a needed training program — or it’s too expensive to send its workers to the closest out-of-district community college — businesses must find their talent elsewhere.
Another factor, according to Linda Brand, executive director of Herman Miller Cares, a corporate giving program, is that “counties without community colleges are losing their young people to those with in-district rates.”
Students with the means tend to relocate to counties where they can pay lower tuition, she said.
“The problem with that is once they have settled in that new county, they are likely to find jobs in that area, creating a talent shortage for employers in regions without a community college,” Brand said.
Even business organizations that favor lower taxes say there would be benefits to community life if the legislation passes.
“Talent is a top issue for our members,” said Allie Bush, director of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve seen a lot of success with these training opportunities for those already in the workforce or looking to enter it.”
Welding, mechanics, electrical and industrial operations are customizable programs previously developed for local businesses in partnership with community colleges, she said.
“We’re always looking for great ways to build the current and future workforce in our community,” Bush said.
And Schipper said, “Some argue the unemployment rate is so low that we don’t need to focus on this right now. But like building a road, there’s never a right time — we just need it as part of the community’s infrastructure.”
By BRIDGET BUSH