Economy Wakes Up Colleges FCCJ Tries Matching Needs of Work Force

Article excerpt

Emphasizing the benefit of a delayed, but fatter, paycheck has become a priority at Florida Community College at Jacksonville, where administrators are trying to reverse a pattern of declining enrollment.

Administrators pinpoint the strong regional economy as the main reason for a 12 percent drop in enrollment between 1993-94 and 1997-98, the most recent year for which statistics were available. When people can find work easily, they are less inclined to enroll in community college.

Similar decreases have occurred at other large community colleges in Florida.

But an ongoing transition at FCCJ also has contributed to the decline.

Acting under increased pressure from state and regional officials to produce skilled workers for high-demand, high-paying fields, the college has begun to phase out courses that will not match employment needs. Although new programs are beginning, recruitment needs to be bolstered, said Don Green, FCCJ's executive vice president for instruction and student services.

New vocational programs begun by the college in recent years include network administration, electronic commerce and multimedia computer programming and applications. Programs that have been phased out include bank teller and secretarial operations, business software applications and child-care supervisor.

In general, the state estimates a livable wage begins at $9 an hour, said Edythe Abdullah, associate vice president of work force development at FCCJ.

But lured by immediate employment, students have dropped out of the community college for jobs that pay far less. In June, the unemployment rate in the area including Duval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties was 3.2 percent.

Reaching potential students who are in dead-end jobs is at the heart of a college initiative to increase enrollment in selected programs by as much as 15 percent during the next two years.

"You can have a good job now. But you can always improve your skills and get a better job," Abdullah said.

To recapture interest, the college recently began a $100,000 advertising campaign, described as its most significant. And it is re-evaluating all of its work force-related programs, spurred by changes in state support that place greater emphasis on job placement.

Work force education, the vocational and technical programs that prepare students for jobs that do not require a four-year degree, will be financed differently beginning this fall.

Instead of providing money based exclusively on enrollment, lawmakers in 1997 devised a complicated system that requires community colleges to demonstrate that students have successfully completed programs and obtained jobs. Until administrators do this, a portion of the budget will be held back.

Eventually, state expectations will force FCCJ to realign all programs, Green said.

Programs or courses will either have to meet state needs for specific industries, or become self-supporting, he said. That could mean increased tuition for community education programs that do not address state needs, the kind of courses routinely offered at a discount.

"The state is pushing for high-skill, high-wage, high-demand programs," Green said. "We want the college to focus on those."

The enrollment decline has come in a variety of programs, from vocational education to college credit. And it is rooted in several areas.

"It's the economy," Green said. "It's the new funding model. It's competition."

Some losses are attributed to increased tuition and decreased course offerings. Legislators have increased tuition for training courses taken by students who already have jobs but who need to update their skills.

These courses, typically for new office software, are usually covered by employers. …