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Community colleges struggle to meet demand for health classes

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A new opinion survey of nearly three dozen deans from California community colleges suggests many colleges are turning away qualified applicants from health care programs at a time when demand is expected to soar.

One official called the report's findings accurate and sobering but said that with the system facing at least a $400 million cut, the colleges simply can't meet the need for more health programs.

The survey, conducted by Goodwin Simon Strategic Research and funded by a grant to Fenton Communications from the California Wellness Foundation, interviewed 33 deans of allied health programs at California community colleges. Allied health programs include positions such as laboratory and X-ray technicians, nursing aides, respiratory therapists and medical secretaries.

The report found that 72 percent of deans opined that allied health training programs are their school’s most sought-after programs, and 97 percent reported that those graduates are usually successful in finding employment in their field.

Yet only 6 percent of deans said their colleges were able to accept all qualified applicants for allied health programs in 2009 and 2010.

"Clearly there is a significant demand," said Amy Simon, a partner at Goodwin Simon. "To see that only 6 percent were accepting all qualified applicants, I thought that was a stunning figure."

Meanwhile, an earlier report called "Help Wanted," also funded by the California Wellness Foundation, points to growing demand. The 2009 report said the state will need roughly 988,000 allied health workers by 2030, yet the state’s education system is only on track to train 634,000 allied health workers.

That report did not take into account the possible impact of federal health care reform, which may only increase the demand for allied health care workers.

Jose Millan, interim vice chancellor for economic development and workforce preparation for the community colleges, said he agreed with the findings of the survey, but the funding to increase allied health programs does not exist.

In fact, community college officials estimate that Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed $400 million budget cut would result in as many as 350,000 students losing access to the system.

"The colleges are being asked to do more, to open up more allied health programs, but you just cannot do that without the funding mechanism to allow you to do it," Millan said. "The numbers aren't there. But yet the need, as everybody recognizes, is there."

In the survey, 78 percent of deans reported that lack of funding was an important factor in turning away qualified applicants, but other issues played roles as well. Some 76 percent of deans described as an important factor too few partnerships with health care providers for training and intern or apprenticeship opportunities. And 75 percent reported the lack of funding to hire instructors needed for the field as an important reason.

Some colleges have formed public-private partnerships with medical providers to add more courses in high-demand fields.

Faced with 40 vacancies for respiratory therapists, MemorialCare Health System, for example, partnered with Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa by providing and paying for one of MemorialCare's respiratory therapists to serve as an instructor at the college. The health provider also contributed funding for student recruitment and stipends, according to the 2009 "Help Wanted" report.

The program produced 24 additional graduates between 2008 and 2009. It also provided a financial benefit for MemorialCare, which estimates it will save $1.4 million through 2012 by not having to hire contractor replacements for respiratory therapist vacancies.

Millan applauds such public-private partnerships but says they are not the "silver bullet" because they wouldn't be enough to fill the colleges' health care training shortage.

Such partnerships also present difficulties, Millan said. A hospital that pays for instructors may see changes in their workforce needs from month to month or semester to semester, but colleges can't convert their training programs that quickly.

Still, the colleges have added some programs in recent years to respond to the growing need.

In 2009, the chancellor's office received $8 million in federal Workforce Investment Act Funds over three years and $6 million in federal stimulus dollars over two years to expand allied health programs. Together the funds allowed the colleges to enroll an additional 4,900 students, according to a 2009 report to the legislature [PDF].

Still, Millan said, "It isn't enough for the need. We're looking at an avalanche of retirements in the next few years. The system is going to be overloaded by demand, and there's not enough supply to meet that demand."


Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report


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