By Brenda Flanagan
“I’m coming to college. I’m 40 years old, and I’m here at school with 19- and 20-year-old kids and that was a real big fear of mine,” said Michelle Chaloka.
But that’s not Chaloka’s biggest challenge. Before enrolling here at Raritan Valley Community College, she started taking community college classes in prison while serving three years for a drunk driving accident. The school sends professors to teach at seven prisons.
“We have close to 500 students enrolled. I’ve been to two graduations. And they’re remarkable students,” said Raritan Valley Community College President Michael McDonough.
“They welcomed me, you know? And it was really difficult because, coming from inside [prison], and then coming out here, there was so much anxiety and so much craziness, you know?” Chaloka said.
“Places like Raritan Valley and our other community colleges can in fact become hope factories. They can become hope factories for citizens who didn’t believe education was for them,” said Gov. Chris Christie.
To foster that development, Christie signed an agreement bringing all 19 community colleges into an expanded partnership with the state’s year-old “Career Connections” network. His goal: to increase to 65 percent the share of Jersey residents with working certificates and associate degrees or higher, by the year 2025. He claims businesses like LG, Honeywell, Goya and UPS need workers.
“A four-year degree is not for everyone. There are people who have other aspirations, other goals, other skills and abilities that can be maximized by the type of industry-related credentials that are given here at community colleges, or by the two-year associates degree,” Christie said.
But while the state Department of Labor’s counting on an undiminished flow of federal dollars to pay for programs like these, the Trump administration’s budget proposal could cut funding for job creation programs like this one by half a billion dollars, nationwide.
What can be done to compensate? “Well, I think it’s too early to know what the budget’s going to look like. It’s got to work its way through Congress so I think it’s too early to comment on that,” said New Jersey Department of Labor Acting Commissioner Aaron Fichtner.
Critics call cuts to jobs programs short-sighted.
“Programs that are going to further people’s skills actually have a benefit to the economy. So when you invest a dollar, you get multiple dollars back when someone becomes a taxpaying citizen,” said Melanie Willoughby, New Jersey Business and Industry Association chief government affairs officer.
“By him cutting that, the crime rate is going to go up because nobody is going to have anything to turn to,” Chaloka said.
New Jersey’s Business and Industry Association says it will lobby the state’s congressional delegation to defend career-creating programs like this one against any federal budget cuts.