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Community colleges hope for results from Bush visit
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President Bush greets members of the crowd after his speech to the American Association of Community Colleges. (Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)
President Bush left Minneapolis Monday after raising $1 million at a private fundraiser and giving a policy speech to a national education group. Many who attended the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges in Minneapolis Monday, say they are grateful for the president's recognition of the education and job training programs offered by the country's nearly 1,200 community colleges.

Minneapolis, Minn. — With the election just months away, President George W. Bush's speech to the American Association of Community Colleges took on the feel of his re-election campaign.

The president's nearly hour-long speech touched on a wide range of issues, including a justification for the war in Iraq, his push for hydrogen fuel cell research, a pledge to keep broadband technology un-taxed, and new technology for personal medical records.

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Image Classroom

The president's speech also focused on job creation and retraining. Bush told the audience of about 1,300 community college officials that the work they do is critical to creating more productive workers.

"Thanks for what you're doing to make America a more hopeful place," Bush said. "Thanks for providing an opportunity for somebody who says, the job I used to work in is beginning to be transitioned out as our economy changes, and help me get the skill sets necessary to be employable." Bush said the economy is on the mend after what he described as a shallow recession. Bush said job growth in the short term is challenged by a lack of workers with the necessary skills for those jobs.

The president says his 2005 budget proposal to Congress includes $250 million for a community college focused job training program. Bush said the program would create partnerships between community colleges and local businesses. He called it a practical way to help people find jobs and learn new skills that will be tailored to the needs of local industry.

"It's a way to keep America on the leading edge of change. You can't change the society if you don't have a workforce that is capable of working in the new jobs of the 21st century," Bush said. "And the community colleges provide the capacity for us to have the skill sets necessary in our workers."

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Image Joe Sertich

Bush said he thinks 100,000 people will be trained through the new program. He offered no further details, including where the $250 million would come from. Many suspect the money will come from his proposed $300 million cut to an existing vocational program that Minnesota's two-year colleges rely on heavily.

Despite the financial uncertainty of the intiative, the president's speech drew mostly positive reactions from Minnesota's community college officials.

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor James McCormick said while he is anxious to hear more details about the president's initiative, he appreciates Bush's focus on community colleges.

"I particularly liked the way he called attention to the fact that the nation's economic and quality of life depends on education, and on a lot of what we do in the community and technical colleges," says McCormick.

The majority of college students in Minnesota are enrolled at the state's 25 community and technical colleges. They're working toward Associates degrees, or getting trained in their field or a new one.

My hope is that, like a pebble in a pond, it's going to radiate out -- it's going to influence the Congress and state Legislatures, so we can get the support we need.
- Terrence Leas, president of Riverland community college

MnSCU, which oversees the two-year institutions, says they play a vital role in the state's workforce and economy. The schools provide training and degrees in growth industries, such as health care and computer technology. They also educate the state's police officers and firefighters.

And community colleges retrain workers laid off from the airline and mining industries, according to Joe Sertich, president of the Northeast Minnesota Higher Education District, which includes five community colleges.

"We serve as a safety net. We've gone through tremendous layoffs, and so we move in as a rapid response team to quickly help people transfer to another career, to another job," Sertich said. "In one instance, where LTV steel mining company displaced 1,400 workers, 900 of them came for help."

Sertich says data shows that 90 percent of those 900 who came for retraining are now re-employed, many of them in the health care industry.

One of Minnesota's 25 community colleges is Riverland, with three campuses in south central Minnesota. President Terrence Leas says he's hoping to see a ripple effect from President Bush's visit -- more public recognition for community colleges.

"My hope is that, like a pebble in a pond, it's going to radiate out -- it's going to influence the Congress and state Legislatures, so we can get the support we need," said Leas.

From the community college perspective, that support has been dwindling lately, even while the need and the enrollments continue to grow. The majority of public money for higher education in Minnesota comes from the state Legislature. But that's been scaled back in recent years, including a 15 percent cut in the last budget cycle.

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