Supporters: 'Huge demand' for college

Monday, June 11, 2007

Some business leaders think Cape Gir-ardeau needs a community college.

Business leader Earl Norman and Cape Girardeau banker Steve Taylor say a community college would provide an open-admission school that would offer students an affordable way to take general education classes and get post-secondary technical training that would give them the skills to get decent-paying jobs.

They would like to see the Cape Girar-deau Career and Technology Center, which opened nearly six years ago on South Silver Springs Road, expanded into a community college. "We have an incredible asset in the Career and Technology Center. It makes sense to add onto it," Norman said.

Rich Payne, director of the technology center, believes students would benefit from a community college. Many community college courses focus on vocational training, he said.

Payne and Norman point to the creation of the Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Mo., as a model of turning a vocational school into a community college. Approved by voters in 1990, the college opened its doors in 1991 in a former vocational school in the Springfield School District with 1,198 college-credit students. Today, it has nearly 10,000 students, Norman said.

Norman said residents in Cape Girardeau and the surrounding region need the same opportunity. "There is a huge demand, I think, that is unmet in this area," he said.

But Southeast Missouri State University president Dr. Ken Dobbins said he doesn't see a need to create a community college and establish the tax levy needed to help pay for it.

"Why build another college if you don't need it?" he asked.

Civic leaders on both sides of the debate hope a planned study by the Missouri Department of Economic Development and the University of Missouri will outline the job training and post-secondary education needs of Southeast Missouri.

Norman and other proponents say that could help launch efforts to establish such a school. Dobbins, on the other hand, believes such a study would conclude a community college isn't needed.

Cape Girardeau businesswoman Kathy Swan, who chairs the Missouri Coordinating Board for Education, welcomes the study. She said it will provide an opportunity to find out what educational gaps exist in the region. "Then we can get together and talk about how best to fill those gaps," she said.

John Mehner, president of the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce, agreed the study is the first step to addressing an issue that has been talked about behind the scenes by business leaders and educators for at least two years.

But Norman and Taylor are convinced that the area would benefit from having a community college, both in terms of educational opportunities and job creation.

Community colleges have open admissions, providing individuals who did poorly in high school and don't have high ACT scores a chance for a college education, Norman said.

A college also would teach medical technology and other skills that would lead to employment, Taylor said.

Community colleges make the first two years of college more affordable for low-income students because tuition is less than that charged by four-year institutions, Norman said. Under the state's A-Plus scholarship program, students who qualify can take two years of community college classes for free, he said.

But Dobbins said students who don't meet Southeast's moderately selective admissions criteria, including a minimum ACT score of 18, can take classes at the school's Sikeston campus or its campuses at Perryville, Malden and Kennett, Mo. All of the outlying campuses have open admissions policies and lower tuition than what students pay to attend the university, he said.

Students also can take courses offered at the career and technology center in partnership with Mineral Area College, a community college based in Park Hills, Mo., Dobbins said.

Eighty-one percent of beginning freshmen from Cape Girar-deau County who enrolled in a four-year public college in fall 2005 took classes at Southeast, Dobbins said.

"We get probably 80 [percent] to 85 percent of all students that go to a four-year institution in a five-county area," he said.

But Payne said some 60 students from Cape Girardeau, Scott and Bollinger counties are enrolled in classes at Shawnee Community College in Ullin, Ill.

A new community college would be funded not only with tuition and a property tax, but also state money.

Dobbins said the public would question the need for a property tax to build a community college to serve students who may already be served by other educational institutions or partnerships. However, proponents insist they could convince the public of the need for such a tax.

"Frankly, the tax is pretty small," Norman said. The benefit, he said, is that those who live in the district pay less for classes than those who reside outside the district boundaries.

Under state law, the property tax is tied to the assessed valuation in the community college district, which encompasses the boundaries of several school districts.

The higher the assessed valuation, the lower the initial tax levy that voters can approve. The maximum initial levy is 40 cents per $100 assessed valuation, state higher education officials said.

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