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Local educators see promise, economic growth in Obama college plan

CORPUS CHRISTI — As oil wells sprung up in the Eagle Ford Shale, the president of Coastal Bend College said enrollment went down.

The four-campus system had about 3,500 students at its lowest point between the fall of 2011 and 2014, Beatriz T. Espinoza said, as high school graduates landed high-paying oil and gas industry related jobs.

“They took all our 18-year-old students and put them into the workforce almost immediately with the entry level jobs,” she said. “It was labor-intensive jobs, but it was good pay.”

Those former students are returning to the classroom at Coastal Bend College students to secure better jobs in the oil patch, Espinoza said. Enrollment ticked up to about 3,700 last fall, she said, as young oil workers see they need more training to get longer-term or managerial positions.

“Once (they’re) in the workforce, they see the value of continuing because they’re among people who continued their education,” she said.

But Espinoza said the percentage of people in the colleges’ 9,400-square-foot service area who complete education beyond high school is at about 12 percent.

President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide two free years of community college for certain students could help change that by eliminating cost as a barrier, she said. Obama talked about the plan earlier this month and is expected to touch on the subject again Tuesday during his State of the Union address.

While it’s a long way from becoming a policy — it would have to make it through a Republican-controlled Congress first — the $60 billion idea has been panned by critics as a bad move amid national debt and a waste of resources. A blog post by House Speaker John Boehner’s staff used a series of Taylor Swift GIFs to criticize the plan’s price tag.

But people like Espinoza said giving more people access to a two-year degree would be an economic boon in South Texas.

In related news, Illinois community college to offer degree in fracking.

It would give the area the “ability to entice bigger industries because we would have a workforce that would meet their needs,” she said. “In South Texas, we could be a regional and not just local economic engine because we’re in commutable distance for most of our area.”

Mark Escamilla, president of Del Mar College, said he is remaining cautiously optimistic about the proposal, which could have people giving community colleges a second look.

“With two years of college being paid for right out of the shoot, so to speak, that’s going to cause people who are going to send their Tommy or Susie straight to a university to really look basically at half their college tuition taken care of before they ever leave town,” he said.

The college is preparing to spend $157 million in voter-approved bond funds on new facilities and renovations, and it has purchased land to eventually expand with another campus on the Southside.

Twenty-eight percent of Corpus Christi residents age 25 and older have an associate degree or higher, according to U.S. Census data. The median Corpus Christi resident with a bachelor’s degree made $47,000 in 2013 while people with only a high school diploma made $25,900.

Jim Lee, chief economist at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said economic development has been slow until recently in the region because of the low education level among the workforce. Education goes hand-in-hand with wages, he said.

Industries have invested millions locally in job training to fill workers shortages. CB&I Inc., Dynamic Industries Inc. and Valero Refining donated a combined $1.7 million to Del Mar College in December to train more carpenters, welders and pipe fitters, among other trades.

Unlike those who believe hiring in the oil patch will remain steady, Lee predicts falling oil prices will send Eagle Ford Shale workers looking for other jobs. That’s where Obama’s plan would help, he said.

“This proposal would relieve some of the expected economic pains as result of job losses from the oil fields in Texas,” he said. “The majority of those jobs require little training beyond high school. The proposal would induce them to return to school, which will prepare them for new careers in other industries.”

Monika de la Garza, communications and outreach coordinator for Workforce Solutions of the Coastal Bend, said her organization has seen no change in the demand for workers by Eagle Ford Shale employers, though it’s being closely monitored.

With facilities from companies like Voestalpine and M&G Chemicals coming online, there are a variety of skilled and unskilled jobs available with high starting pay, she said. Most oil and gas industry jobs don’t require experience, and some offer on-the-job training.

There are still few details attached to the president’s proposal, though he has said students would have to maintain a 2.5 GPA and enroll at least part time. Espinoza said she would like to see the plan include mechanisms to ensure students complete their degrees or certificates. About 25 percent of people in Coastal Bend College’s service area start college but don’t finish, she said.

“If we’re going to be offering it for free, there’s got to be a clear expectation of (graduating) on time and finishing classes,” she said. “The longer they drag it out, the harder it is for them to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Plus, it’s less costly for us overall because every year, tuition seems to go up.”

Escamilla said there might be resistance from businesses in the short term, if the proposal was eventually approved by Congress, because people would leave the workforce to go back to school.

“But in near future, businesses would stand to benefit from a more skilled and educated workforce,” he said.

Twitter: Caller_Nadia

This article was written by Nadia Tamez-Robledo from Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Texas and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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