Yes, to Tri-C Levy

Crain's Cleveland Business Editorial

If you care about addressing the skills gap, reducing income inequality and expanding employment opportunities to more citizens, a strong local community college is essential.

We're fortunate in Northeast Ohio to have several good ones, including Cuyahoga Community College, which is asking voters in November to renew a 1.9-mill tax and approve a 0.4-mill increase. (Tri-C has two alternating, 10-year operating levies, with separate renewals, five years apart. Voters in 2017 also approved a 25-year, 0.5-mill property tax increase to pay for new buildings and repairs.) The increase sought this fall amounts to about $14 per year on a $100,000 home, and it would help Tri-C keep tuition low, support technical education and workforce training, and expand services at its community access centers.

We understand the sensitivity about any increase in taxes in Cuyahoga County. However, this is a case of relatively low cost and high reward, and to our mind, it's a no-brainer: Vote in favor of the levy.

Tri-C, founded in 1963, is Ohio's largest and oldest community college. It serves more than 51,000 students a year, the vast majority of whom, when they graduate, stick around the region and help improve both the size and quality of the Northeast Ohio workforce. Talk for a bit with virtually any business owner and one of the main topics of conversation will be the difficulty in finding people to fill open positions. A stronger Tri-C helps preserve and expand a valuable pipeline of qualified workers.

Tri-C has established Centers of Excellence in six critical areas — creative arts; hospitality management; information technology; manufacturing technology; nursing; and public safety — and it offers more than 1,000 credit courses each semester in more than 200 career and technical programs. The trajectory of degrees and certificates awarded over the last few years is consistent in a positive direction, from 2,380 in fiscal year 2010 to 4,430 in fiscal 2018, according to data provided by Tri-C.

We're impressed by the work done by Tri-C's president, Alex Johnson, since he started in that role in 2013. He has placed an emphasis on educational access, retention and completion, and the school's numbers in those areas have shown marked improvement. Tuition for a typical full-time student at Tri-C is less than $2,800 per year, the lowest rate in Ohio. As college tuition has soared, making higher education a stretch for many families, Tri-C's focus on affordability is crucial to providing opportunities for students.

Tri-C also has worked closely with the corporate community to create relevant training programs for prospective and incumbent workers. In an interview last week with Crain's editorial board, Johnson said Tri-C's mobile training unit, a 53-foot, hands-on lab and classroom that trains professionals for manufacturing jobs, is booked for the next 48 weeks, and the school is preparing to add more such units, focusing on areas such as health care and IT.

A recent project from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University looked at a few institutions, including Tri-C, that are managing "the broad-based transformation of programs, student services and related support systems." A 20-page report looked at changes Tri-C has made to achieve "substantial increases in degree completion rates." Tri-C's graduation rate now stands at 21%, below the national average for community colleges (about 25%) but better than the 18% rate for urban institutions.

The trend here is much more important than the number. Tri-C reaches out to people who otherwise might not consider college, including people with families, full-time workers seeking to bolster their training, or those who are older and seeking a new life direction. Community college helps give people a shot — or maybe a second or third shot — at getting ahead.

"We have a lot more work to do," Johnson said. A yes vote helps the school do that. Early voting starts Oct. 8, ahead of Election Day on Nov. 5. The increase Tri-C seeks is modest, but the school's impact is big.

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