I read with interest news about the $770 million bond issue that the Austin Community College District placed on the ballot for Austin, TX area voters in November. Approved by the ACC’s Board of Trustees in August, the purpose of the bond was to fund workforce training in healthcare, advanced manufacturing and information technology across 11 ACC campuses and create two additional campuses in the Austin metroplex.
An advanced manufacturing and skill trades center would consume $200 million of bond proceeds and is planned to be located on 124 acres of land in Del Valle, TX. Del Valle is an area adjacent to the Austin Bergstrom International Airport which encompasses the new Tesla manufacturing plant as well as the Circuit of the Americas race complex, the U.S.’s first Formula 1 permanent race track. The ACC center would include automotive technology, building construction technology, and welding along with general education.
Expansion of ACC’s health sciences programs would consume another $100 million of bond proceeds and include a new nursing program at ACC’s Kyle, TX campus. Kyle is a rapidly expanding suburb on Austin’s South side between Austin and San Marcos. ACC’s Highland campus located in a former shopping mall in the center of Austin will receive $100 million to enhance its advanced manufacturing programs and a new entrepreneurship institute. The ACC’s Cypress Creek campus in Cedar Park, TX will receive $80 million to expand its IT programs. The shuttered Pinnacle Campus in Southwest Austin will receive $75 million to build a new facility on the existing acreage. The campus will offer health science, IT, and business programs at this campus.
Education-related bonds in Texas are funded through property taxes and the ACC Board maintained that the bonds could be repaid without raising the property tax rate since the value of homes is expected to continue to rise in the Austin area. This bond issue was only the third ever for Austin Community College, the last one was for $385 million in 2014.
I was not surprised when the bond passed in November with a nearly 70 percent approval. Austin is the second fastest growing city in the U.S. and the fastest growing city in the U.S. based on net migration of the population. Other than the Highland campus, the funding allocations are targeted toward the fastest growing suburbs where housing is more affordable.
The ACC bond issue wasn’t the largest community college bond issue that passed in November 2022. That honor goes to the nine campus Los Angeles community college district whose voters approved a $5.3 billion bond issue. Since I live in Austin, I’ll limit my comments to the ACC bond issuance.
ACC has the largest student enrollment of any college in the Austin area. Its credit earning population is 35,609 and its non-credit earning student population is about the same for a total of 70,000. It’s also the most affordable with average annual tuition of $2,550 for a full time student earning 30 semester hours.
Advanced manufacturing programs will be the largest beneficiaries of the bond issue allocations. According to ACC Board Chair Nan McRaven, the recent relocation of Tesla’s Gigafactory 5 and announcements by Samsung and several other semiconductor companies of expansions in the area influenced their decision to expand their training capabiities. Since January 2022, Austin experienced a 20 percent increase in demand for advanced manufacturing jobs, more than double the rate of 9 percent experienced by the state of Texas.
I support the increase allocated to expanding health science and nursing programs at ACC. According to Lightcast Job Posting Analytics, there have been 11,000 postings for nurses in the Austin area in 2022. Ashley King, director of healthcare partnerships at Workforce Solutions, indicated in an interview that only 950 graduates from Austin area colleges were able to fill those positions.
Even though ACC offers bachelor’s, associates’, and certificates in nursing, I doubt that the expansion of its programs will come close to meeting the area’s need in nursing. There are limitations in lab classes, clinical placements, and nursing faculty that in my opinion are not only problems in Austin but should be discussed nationally if we are ever going to solve our nursing shortage.
According to ACC Board Chair McRaven, the average ACC alumnus increases his or her income between 45-65 percent over a five-year period after graduation. That’s an impressive statistic, one that I am sure is enhanced by the focus areas of health sciences, advanced manufacturing, IT, and business.
While most of the bond issue is going toward physical campus expansions, approximately five percent will go toward students. Among the projects to be funded are wellness centers with mental health services, increases in the number of classrooms that can accommodate in-person and virtual learners in the same class session, and childcare centers that have drop-off of all day options for student parents. While all of these are excellent applications of the funds, I believe the hybrid flexible classrooms and childcare centers will have the most positive impact on student persistence and completion.
The question that I posed in the title of this post, “which benefits most, the community or the well-funded community college?” has not yet been answered. It’s easy to see how and why voters approved the bond issue for ACC. There are unfilled jobs in the area and having programs to train workers will help continue Austin’s attractiveness to companies locating or relocating to the area.
At the same time, there was an eight-year gap between ACC’s last bond issue and this one. Eight years is a very long time in corporate planning horizons. There will be ACC board planning sessions in January that are intended to discuss the prioritization of spending, but my concern is that the spending won’t occur fast enough to meet the needs of current and future employers.
There’s also the issue that many community colleges experience which is how to attract and afford the experts needed to teach these programs. Good instructors may be attracted to the salaries and benefits of the companies who are hiring the community college graduates. I’ve often thought that true community partnerships would involve the community colleges utilizing instructors from the local employers (manufacturers, hospitals, IT companies, etc.) and sharing salaries in a mutually beneficial allocation.
If the U.S. is to remain competitive in the global landscape of jobs, its companies must be nimble and agile in tailoring products and services to meet the needs of the local, regional, national, and global communities. Physical structures and programs take long periods of time to complete while at the same time, some programs are not conducive to being taught online or hybrid. I’d like to see some of these discussions surface in the ACC Board’s prioritization discussions next month. I’d also like to read about them occurring in other areas where voters have approved appropriations toward expanding community college facilities and programs. Relevant and reliable is as important in education as it is in business. Substance wins over shininess almost all the time.