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Auto Body Repair Closure Highlights Danger of Academic Cuts

Trustees at the Laramie County Community College in Laramie, WY have decided to close the school’s auto body repair program. The Trustees based their decision on low enrollment, high program costs and low starting wages. Cutting the program will create a one-time savings of about $200,000 for LCCC.

Here’s the problem with cutting academic programs to save money. The community still needs auto body repair personnel. The program’s closure means that community will have fewer personnel over time. It will also force local employers to hire untrained personnel and train them on their own.

Technical programs are expensive. No one’s going to argue that point. But eliminating a needed technical training program to make the college “more profitable” is misguided. Educational institutions don’t run technical training programs to make a profit. Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice when the books balance. But the purpose of higher education isn’t to make a profit, unless the education provider is a for-profit college.

Part of the reason we have publicly funded technical schools is to run programs that -on their face – are not profitable, but they are necessary. Technical programs are expensive to operate. If the cost of the programs were left to the students, few students would enroll. The community would be worse off for it.

That’s the balance that technical education strikes in a community. The incremental cost to individual community members is trivial and the benefits to the community as a whole are large.

Auto Body Repair is just one example

I bring this up because we cannot accept the closure of academic programs based on either their cost or their profitability. In the case of auto body repair, you could argue that students aren’t entering the field because starting wages are low. You would be correct, but why are starting wages low for an occupation that is both necessary and in demand?

Well, let’s ask the insurance industry. The auto insurers work to reduce wages in auto body repair to keep their expenses low. But trained professionals who supply in-demand skills deserve to be paid well for their work.

Laramie’s auto body repair shops who train their own workers will have similar trouble recruiting workers. The starting wages for the industry discourage new workers from entering the field. Making the auto body shops do in-house training will not reduce the cost of auto body repair. But it could potentially force auto body shops out of business if they can’t operate their shops on rock-bottom reimbursements from insurers.

Health care training programs also have the same problem. (Also heavily influenced by the insurance industry.) Why should the public train workers to fill high-demand, low-wage jobs?

Instead of closing technical programs, community colleges should exert counterpressure on industries that depress the starting wages of their graduates. It is potentially a larger problem for community colleges, especially if the Ed Department will measure them by their graduates’ earnings. How many other community college degrees are artificially rendered less valuable by billion-dollar industries that simply don’t want to pay market wages?

It’s really the ideal job for the Board of Trustees. Unfortunately, it requires Trustees that are fully engaged in and supportive of the needs of the community they serve.

Photo Credit: Orange Sky, via Flickr