Community Colleges Play Key Role in Tough Economic Times

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Rhoda Joseph's story is a familiar one by now. After a 20-year career as a chemist, she was laid off just before Christmas and came home "thinking the world was coming to an end." What's different is that a silver lining awaited her in Bucks County, Pa. "I saw in the paper, within days of my layoff, that [the community college] was offering free tuition for displaced workers," she says. "I thought, here's an opportunity for me to go back and see if I can fashion a new career." Now she's enrolled in a paralegal class, hoping to transfer her science skills into patent or intellectual property law. In Pennsylvania, all 14 community colleges are offering or finalizing plans for tuition assistance to locals who've lost jobs. More than 1,000 people are already signed up, says Diane Bosak, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. Among the nation's 1,200 community colleges there is no tracking of how many are making similar gestures, but examples can be found in New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Washington State. "It's an ingrained value of the community colleges, that they're there to serve the educational needs of their communities, and they have always responded as quickly as they can," says George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington. Inspired by the colleges in his home state of Pennsylvania, Sen. Bob Casey (D) has just proposed a bill that would reimburse community colleges up to $1,000 for each displaced worker whose tuition is waived. The funds would come from the US Department of Labor's Community-Based Job Training Grants program. "If the community colleges can get some help from the federal government to make this a nationwide initiative, it can help with ... a transition for those who are unemployed," Senator Casey says. Oakton Community College, outside Chicago, launched its "Reboot" program this winter for local residents laid off after Jan. 1, 2008. Tuition is free for at least one semester for five subjects that are in demand, including computer programming and green marketing. Eighty-three people signed up before the classes filled to capacity, says career-services manager Robin Vivona . "We had people who were driving buses [and] people who were in middle management and everywhere in between," Ms. Vivona says. Without the tuition waiver, many told her, they wouldn't have taken the courses. "A lot of people thought of education as a luxury." Ron McMath says he jumped at the free classes at Oakton's campus in Skokie, Ill., which he heard about through a support group at the local library. After more than a decade in information-technology with an international firm, he was laid off a year ago. He's gotten by on a small fruit-and-vegetable franchise and part-time sales work for his wife's company. But now he's in class for five hours a night, five nights a week, to become a certified computer diagnostic specialist. "I know how to build a computer from scratch now," he says, which will add hardware troubleshooting to his skills. Despite their desire to help, community colleges often can't find enough money, staffing, or space to keep up with demand. …

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