July 1, 2010 at 1:00 am

Strained community colleges reap little benefit from retraining

Michael Bazydlo, left, of St. Clair Shores earned an IT degree from Macomb Community College through the retraining program. He enjoyed taking classes so much, he is back this summer for another associate degree. At right is classmate Igor Dimitrijevski of Clinton Township. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

When Gov. Jennifer Granholm launched the No Worker Left Behind program in August 2007, she stood alongside the presidents of the state's community colleges, which were to be the proving grounds for the massive effort to transform Michigan's economy.

But nearly three years into the program, fewer than 1 in 3 of the displaced workers have chosen two-year public colleges, which already are at or near capacity with recent high school graduates who can't afford, can't meet standards at or chose not to attend four-year universities.

That statistic amplifies criticism by some who believe that for-profit proprietary schools -- often less proven and more expensive trade schools -- are reaping the biggest benefits of the program while state funding for community colleges stagnates.

"By the state not financing community colleges and allowing community colleges to expand to take on further work force courses and programs, it actually costs the state money because the capacity is absorbed by private schools at a much higher rate," said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College, who is concerned about the lack of state funding.

"As a public policy issue, by refusing to expand community colleges, in effect we are inefficiently allocating public dollars to private schools."

Though the state is pushing for long-term training in degree-granting programs, a hallmark of the No Worker Left Behind program is consumer choice, said Andy Levin, head of the program.

"They (community colleges) shouldn't automatically get all the business," Levin said. "They should get it because they are doing the best work, and they are."

Costs lower, aid higher

Community colleges have some advantages for retrainees. Tuition is often cheaper than for-profit competitors such as schools specializing in computer training and health care education. Federal Pell Grants for low-income students can potentially cover the bulk of a student's expense, with No Worker Left Behind money picking up anything left over up to $5,000 per year.

During a visit to Macomb Community College in July 2009, President Barack Obama acknowledged the unsung role of community colleges, announced a $12 billion investment and praised Michigan's landmark retraining effort, saying "the rest of the country should learn from the effort."

But Obama's American Graduation Initiative was cut in March from the health care reconciliation legislation. Community colleges' consolation prize: $2 billion for job training and education.

Community colleges are adapting, and have been transformational for students like Michael J. Bazydlo from St. Clair Shores, who worked for 20 years as project manager in the auto industry before losing his job in 2007.

When he headed to Macomb Community College, it rekindled his love for learning and he immersed himself in his studies. He graduated May 14 with a 3.95 GPA in his IT network security program.

"It makes me feel whole," said Bazydlo, who's now working on a second associate degree on his own dime.

'No capacity for anybody'

At nearly 9 p.m. on a recent Thursday, an exhausted Ella Davis finally had a chance to check e-mail at her cubicle at the Wayne County Community College District. For the last 12 hours, the longtime English professor had been teaching, attending meetings and calming faculty members who didn't get enough summer courses because of budget cuts.

She was warding off a cold and needed some sleep, but she logged onto the computer at a desk so filled with paper and unopened packages that boxes had taken up the vacant cubicle next to hers.

"I feel like an octopus today," said Davis about being pulled in multiple directions.

It's an episode that rings true at many of Michigan's 28 community colleges.

Perhaps nowhere is the strain more vivid than at WCCCD, which for the first time in its 40-year history capped student enrollment this year. It ran out of space, reached its budget capacity and didn't have money to support growth, said Chancellor Curtis L. Ivery.

"Could we take more No Worker Left Behind students? We try," said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, which represents all 28 schools.

High-demand programs like health care and advanced manufacturing already are filled, with some nursing programs up to three-year waits, he said.

"It's not just capacity for No Worker Left Behind students," Hansen said. "There's no capacity for anybody."

At Wayne, property tax income -- the largest revenue stream -- dropped since 2008 in the wake of declining home values and the foreclosure crisis. Even a $10-per-credit tuition increase in the fall didn't diminish the impact. The college is eliminating low-demand programs, reducing class offerings and has cut positions.

Davis taught three courses on Thursdays in the spring with about 70 students of all ages. Three were No Worker Left Behind students.

Each Thursday, the first thing Davis noticed as she walked into her 9 a.m. African-American studies class was a white attendance sheet from one of her star students.

Terrance Graham, 49, routinely was early and diligent about getting his teacher's signature, the necessary proof to retain his once-in-a-lifetime education benefit that's key to turning around his life. He and the two other participants stand out not because of their age but because they are among the most dedicated and engaging students.

"I don't want to miss anything at this stage in the game," said Graham, who spent years in prison for retail fraud. "I'm a little late to the game."

mschultz@detnews.com">mschultz@detnews.com (313) 222-2310 This project was reported with assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.

From left, Wayne County Community College District professor Ella Davis ... (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)