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September 8, 2013
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Publisher’s Notebook: Umpqua Community College is an asset to appreciate

It’s always good to step back and assess your assets. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate what you have when you’ve had it for 50 years and there is nothing like a fresh set of eyes to remind you how lucky you really are.

That’s where I come in. I’m still the new guy on the block and I see things that some of you may have forgotten about because it’s human nature to take certain things for granted.

Take hair, for example.

I lived in San Francisco for most of my childhood and didn’t walk across the Golden Gate Bridge until well into my 40s (I actually ran, since it was a race). And I lived in Lake Tahoe for so long I had to be reminded by visitors how beautiful it was and how lucky I was to have it in my backyard.

“Oh, yeah, it is beautiful, isn’t it?” I’d reply, gazing into another postcard sunset.

During my first year “on the job” I’ve gotten to know Umpqua Community College through its president, Joe Olson, and through my service on its foundation board. That community asset will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year and I thought I’d take a moment to share some impressions and concerns.

The good news is that there are between 2,300 and 2,500 students attending the college this fall, enrolling in a variety of classes and programs designed to get them well on their way to a two-year degree, or employment. College isn’t for everyone and America still needs a skilled work force, especially in the trades such as welding, auto repair or construction. A good tool and die maker, for example, can earn a lot of money today.

Enrollment is down a bit from last year, which Olson attributes to several factors. “Financial aid guidelines are much more stringent than was the case three to five years ago,” he said. “Another cause may be the very high numbers of graduates from UCC over the last three years. They have been our largest graduating classes, so students who enrolled during the boom were successful and completed.”

Olson, who came to Roseburg from Palm Springs a little more than two years ago, also points to declining enrollment in Douglas County’s K-12 schools as a contributing factor. Younger families have left Douglas County in search of employment and most of the modest population gains are coming from retirees. The median age in Douglas County rose from 40 to 42 between the 2000 and 2010 Census.

Since the $40 million bond was shot down in overwhelming fashion in the May 2012 election, Olson and his team have been focused on helping students succeed. “My legacy won’t be about new buildings,” he said. “It will be about student success.”

Their marketing efforts have been geared toward the high schools and to what they call “Stopped Out” students, or those who quit after just one quarter. “That effort includes phone calls, personal communications showing them how easy it is for them to come back,” Olson explained. “The Student Services folks have really stepped up in terms of reaching out of less bureaucratic ways to help students.”

The economic realities haven’t gone away.

“Our default rate (on student loans) is over 30 percent,” said Olson. “That’s extraordinary. It’s usually 8 percent, but that was six or seven years ago when college almost assured you of a job. That guarantee doesn’t exist anymore.”

The need to renovate and expand the campus remains, despite voter sentiment. The state has set aside $16.5 million for community college construction projects, but those funds require a match. If it could find those matching funds — and the only way to do that would probably be through a bond — the college would like to build an allied health building (roughly $8.5 million) and an industrial arts building ($8 million), according to Olson. “We could also use $2 million to $3 million for renovations and technology,” he added. “This would bring our need to $18.5 to $19.5 million.”

Olson wonders if voters might be willing to support a bond that would be roughly half of what they asked for in 2012. That bond measure had $24 million for a health center and $17 million for the industrial arts center.

“Keep in mind that the state will not exceed its allocation of $16.5 million, but would assign a lesser amount to each of these projects,” Olson explained.

“Even though these would be scaled back, they would still leave us with very student-focused teaching areas and advanced technology, which would meet the needs for allied health, welding and for other industrial arts,” Olson said. “This would dramatically enhance jobs and economic development.”

In other words, Umpqua Community College plays a vital role in the economic and social fabric of our community. And that’s something we all have a stake in.

They say you never really appreciate what you had until it’s gone. If that’s true, it seems to me that we ought to do whatever we can to protect and nurture one of our community’s greatest assets.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or jackerman@nrtoday.com.


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The News-Review Updated Sep 9, 2013 09:33AM Published Sep 13, 2013 12:23PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.