Instructors in the auto technology program at Springfield Technical Community College decried the elimination of their program, which was among seven that fell victim to budget cuts.
Ramiro Soares, department chair of the auto tech program, and instructor Jesse Martello said dropping the program not only ran counter to the college’s mission, but that the interest level among students defied the college’s stated reason of low enrollment.
STCC will no longer offer automotive technology, biomedical engineering technology, biotechnology, civil engineering technology, cosmetology, dental assistant training and landscape design and management technology. College president John Cook said the 95 students in those seven programs will be able to complete their degree work in those programs in a reasonable time frame, while also being allowed alternative options.
No new students will be accepted into those programs, Cook said. Of the 95 students in the seven affected programs, 12 were returning in auto tech, according to Soares.
Cook said enrollment levels were a factor as the college confronted the broader necessity of finding budget reductions. The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to sustain all previous functions, he said.
Soares said the interest level in the STCC auto technology program, its unavailability elsewhere within proximity, and the demand within the auto industry for skilled technicians should have safeguarded the program from the budget ax.
“My numbers are not the problem. I already (had) students enrolled. I also have state-of-the-art equipment – we don’t need (to purchase) anything,‘’ he said.
The auto technology program is a two-step process. The first step is a certificate program that, according to Soares, has had room for only 20 students because the automotive equipment takes up space.
He said he always enrolls at least 21, or a few more in case students change their minds before school opens.
The second step has been the associates degree program that instructs students in skills for cars with automatic transmissions and newer models. Some students leave after the first year to begin work or for other reasons.
Those leaving after the certificate program have much lower earning potential. The STCC associates degree program, the second step, averaged 14 students per year between 2011 and 2018.
Since 2011, combined enrollment in the certificate and associates degree programs ranged between 34 and 42 students. Prior to the cost-cutting announcement, Soares said he sent a detailed plan to administrators, outlining his strategy based on COVID-19 considerations.
The 2020-21 certificate program was to be capped at 16 students rather than 20 for social distancing purposes. Soares said that by June 17, enrollment and registration had occurred for 17 students, one higher than the maximum.
Past history indicated that at least one registered student would not follow through, leaving class size at the prescribed number.
Soares said those numbers belie the overall interest in auto technology. He said he received applications from 51 students this year.
In past years, applications have often ranged between 70 and 85 and at times, well over 100. Soares said this year’s lower number occurred because applications were shut off much earlier, due to limited space caused by COVID-19 restrictions.
In proposing a 2020-21 curriculum, Soares said lectures would be online (which he conceded was “far from ideal”) and that lab costs would double by splitting into two groups for social distancing.
Martello said that in Massachusetts, the STCC auto technology program was the only one of its kind offered at the college level west of Worcester. Very few are offered anywhere in the state,‘’ he said.
“There are kids coming out of schools like Putnam Academy – where are they going to go?” he asked.
Soares doesn’t know how students already in the midst of the program will finish. He said if his full-time position is eliminated, he can’t afford to come back part-time as an adjunct.
Martello said the STCC program reflects a diversity of the students in attracts, one he says is symbiotic to the college’s stated mission.
“Cutting this program shows very little concern for the population we serve,‘’ he said.
Soares said his own personal tools are locked up on campus, with no way to retrieve them. He said some working vehicles were in the process of repair when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the campus, and they, too, remain in the buildings, unfinished and unusable.