Opinion: Arizona community colleges need sustained state funding to prepare learners of all ages for in-demand careers.

With nearly 300,000 students, Arizona’s community colleges are the backbone of our higher educational system, driving the state’s economic engine and delivering an educated citizenry to meet the most in-demand jobs of today and the complexities of tomorrow.

Their financial impact is staggering with graduates earning $11 billion in increased wages over their working lives, equating to 5.6% of the total gross state product. With these colleges woven into the fabric of Arizona’s economy, it is understandable why the state takes a vested interest in their success with state funding.

As the presidents and chancellors of the state’s 10 community college districts, we applaud plans by Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature to boost our rural colleges and fully fund the STEM workforce development formula for Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties.

We rallied in solidarity at the Capitol on Feb. 19 to thank our elected officials for their proposals and showcase our impact across Arizona.

We need state funding more than ever

Over the past two years, we supported the 20 by 2020 plan for K-12, which reaches maturity this year. We also recognize that most employers demand more than a high school diploma. The jobs of the future demand a highly educated and skilled workforce – one produced by Arizona’s community colleges.

Historical reductions in state funding have placed enormous strain on our resources. We need funding – and not just a one-time injection – but an ongoing, consistent supply to keep up with the ever-changing workforce needs of our growing economy.

Currently, Arizona Community Colleges are funded at $116.6 million below the state’s fiscal year 2008 appropriation. From 2008-2019, funding for rural colleges decreased 62% ($42 million to $16.6 million). In 2016, funding for Pima and Maricopa Community Colleges, Arizona’s most significant source of workforce training programs, was eliminated entirely.

In 2019, however, the Legislature authorized one-time funding of $14.2 million to Arizona’s rural community colleges for workforce programs. Additionally, the Legislature appropriated $5.8 million for Maricopa Community Colleges’ Specialty Nursing and Expanded Programs, and $15 million to Pima Community College’s Aviation Program.

The Great Recession is over; the state’s economy is strong. We have capacity and need to flex our financial muscles and invest in workforce development at community colleges – admittedly, a more costly line item, but also a critical one to deliver career-ready students.

How we’re meeting workforce needs

We have a keen pulse on the evolving labor market and here’s what we know. Two out of every three jobs in Arizona now require additional training beyond high school, and 470,000 baby boomers in Arizona are retiring in the next 10 years. Additionally, Arizona has set a 60% postsecondary attainment goal, meaning 1 million more Arizonans need to earn credentials and degrees by 2030.

To meet these emerging workforce needs, Arizona’s community colleges have begun applying their one-time 2019-20 appropriation funding in the following ways:

  • With nurses retiring and the average RN turnover rate of 15%, Arizona is facing a nursing shortage crisis with nearly 21,000 new openings for specialty nurses by 2025. The remedy? Maricopa Community Colleges is creating a state-of-the-art nursing program in Arizona. The funding will cover program development, equipment and facility expansion at Gateway and Paradise Valley Community Colleges.
  • Cochise College, a rural educational hub in southern Arizona, is constructing a new automotive technology building on its Sierra Vista campus, a new agricultural greenhouse on the Douglas campus, and is partnering with Fort Huachuca to train unmanned aerial vehicle mechanics and allied health professionals on how to use new virtual reality technologies.
  • Pima Community College is expanding its Aviation Technology Center for more classrooms, labs and a second commercial jet hangar. According to a study conducted by Sun Corridor, Pima County’s economic development agency, the aviation initiative will help create 450-plus jobs with a total economic impact of $225.5 million over the next five years. The program provides skilled workers for high-wage jobs in a growing sector of the state’s economy.

These examples highlight the transformative work that community colleges can accomplish with funding. But there’s still more to be done.

Sustained funding helps us play our part

We agree with Ducey, who once said that “Education and the economy go hand-in-hand.” Our state’s successful economic trajectory is promising so long as our educational system is consistently funded, specifically with $19 million in ongoing funding to the rural colleges and a full restoration of STEM and Workforce Program funding to Maricopa, Pima and Central Arizona College.

From Flagstaff to Yuma, Kingman to Thatcher and everywhere in between, we are committed to keeping costs affordable and education accessible to the numerous students that need us.

The sustained funding proposed in the 2021 legislative budget positions us to play our part in Arizona’s bright future, preparing learners of all ages for in-demand careers. We look forward to the continued collaboration with legislators and Ducey.

We are The Arizona Community Colleges. We are Arizona.

Read the original article at AZ Central.