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Economy Project: Community Colleges

Dr. Lassiter

By Sam Baker, KERA Morning Edition Host

Dallas, TX –

Texas college and university enrollment grew by nearly 114-thousand students this fall. That's an all time high. Community colleges accounted for much of that for several reasons: tuition costs less, and you can earn degrees faster. But there's also the economy. In this week's KERA's economy segment, Sam Baker talks with Dr. Wright Lassiter, Jr., chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, about who's showing up for class and why.

Dr. Lassiter: We are seeing more and more adults, many of them already holding baccalaureate degrees, some with master's degrees, some few with PhD's who have been trained in certain areas where there are no longer opportunities. So they're coming back to community colleges and they're studying areas like computer information systems, culinary arts, the health programs. And then we also are seeing a surge because of new occupations, one being what we call the green economy, all of the green jobs and the focus on the environment. And then you have an increasing number of recent high school graduates who will come in to study with us as well as individuals who just want to get further down the road in anticipation of what might happen to them. They're just getting credits and social degrees, certificates in specialized areas. And the final area would be the return of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. They have a new GI Bill. We are confident by the spring we will release the research. But then that's a final area, stimulus funding. A large segment of money has been awarded to the Texas Work Force Commission that we have a very close association with, where funds are provided to train individuals in specific areas to meet current work force needs.

Sam: Is this a main or primary focus of community colleges, this emphasis on job training?

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Dr. Lassiter: Work force development will continue to be a major, major focus area, but not the primary one. I'll give you a for instance. President Obama has proposed what is called the American Graduation Initiative to provide a substantial source of funding that would enable individuals under age 26 to obtain a credential that would enable them to be marketable in the work force. It could be an associate two-year degree. It could be a certificate. It could be a combination of courses that would meet a specific need in an industry where the industry certifies that if you have this and this then you can come to work for us. Well there's something else also that's out there- the bill by the Linda Gates Foundation. They have focused their philanthropy exclusively on public education. Now they see the need to move beyond public education and the focus is now on community college. And their view is that they also want to assist individuals under age 26 to be able to become marketable in the work place. So they put a fair amount of money into this effort. Well, that is just an expansion of what always has been a part of the two-prong mission of a community college: to prepare students to move on and get a baccalaureate degree and also provide them for the work force.

Sam: You know, we are at a point now with the economy where we're starting to see signs of a recovery, though there are pundits who say it won't be the same economy that it was. What does this mean for the future of community college do you think?

Dr. Lassiter: It simply means that we must continue to be extremely entrepreneurial- trying to identify emerging needs before they even hit the landscape.

Sam: So if you're going to be of service for people in need of training you have to be ahead of the pack.

Dr. Lassiter: Forecasting is extremely important in a community college.

Sam: But is the state there with the kind of support you need to do that?

Dr. Lassiter: The state is coming there primarily because, I believe for the first, the state sees the community college as being pivotal in economic development. Therefore this vehicle, the two-year institution, it must be optimized. Now we receive something like 28 percent of our funding from the state. It used to be 53 percent, so a heavier burden has been placed on local taxpayers and students. So we're saying to the state, "Look at this disparity. Don't view the support for community colleges are expenditures. Those are needed investments."

Sam: The state you said needs to play catch-up in how it views community colleges. Does the public in general?

Dr. Lassiter: We have a reputation of being able to, shall we say, make do. We'll take what has been provided and we will optimize it. Sometimes that can be your worst enemy, because the state says they will find a way. And yes, we will give them all we can, and if they're short they'll find a way. Well that's the challenge that we face.

Sam Baker talking with Dr. Wright Lassiter, Jr., Chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District. You can find out more about community colleges at

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