President Obama Offers a Boost to Community Colleges

Last week President Obama announced the American Graduation Initiative, a 10-year, $12 billion plan focused on community colleges.  Community colleges play an integral role in the American higher education system and will play an even bigger role as America works toward President Obama’s goals of regaining America’s place as the world’s leader in college completion rates and establishing an American workforce that is able to compete with that of other nations. 

According to a May 2009 report published by the Brookings Institute, enrollments in community colleges increased between 2000-2001 and 2005-2006 by 2.3 million students.  In total, community colleges enroll approximately 45 percent of the nation’s college students.  Community college populations represent far greater diversity than is found on traditional four-year campuses.  According to the Brookings Institute, in 2004, 67 percent of Latino and 47 percent of African-American students entering college were enrolling in community colleges.  Given the large volume of community colleges in the nation, they provide affordable and convenient options for many groups otherwise underrepresented in other higher education institutions.  Community colleges are also appealing for non-traditional-aged college students, many of whom are juggling families and full time jobs. 

Federal, state, and local funding for community colleges has been abysmal when compared to funding for public four-year colleges and universities.  By one estimate, four-year public colleges receive greater than three times the amount provided to community colleges per full time student.  According to the Brookings Institute report cited above, “from 2003 to 2008, state budgets for all public services – Medicaid, transportation, corrections, public assistance, and other expenditures – grew at an average rate of nearly 6 percent, but growth in state support for higher education lagged 1.5 percentage points behind.”  This translated into substantially less funding for community colleges leading to additional problems including significant cuts in amount spent per student at these schools, lack of resources for effective faculty training, and neglected maintenance projects on community college campuses. 

A recent article from Time Magazine noted that “these institutions are our nation’s trade schools, training 59% of our new nurses as well as cranking out wind-farm technicians and video-game designers – jobs that, despite the ballooning unemployment overall, abound for adequately skilled workers.”  An article on CNN.com quoted the President as saying, “’jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience.’”  Community colleges are quite appealing to many students who seek associates degrees.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that many community colleges are facing such overwhelming enrollment increases that some students are being turned away, unable to enroll at all. 

While visiting Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, President Obama outlined the specific elements that would come with the American Graduation Initiative.  Telling the crowd that “Time and again, when we placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result,” he likened the significance of the program to that of President Lincoln’s innovative land-grant program that established numerous colleges around the country and President Roosevelt’s signing of the GI BillAccording to the president, the American Graduation Initiative “will reform and strengthen community colleges…so they get the resources that students and schools need – and the results workers and businesses demand.  Through this plan, we seek to help an additional 5 million Americans earn degrees and certificates in the next decade.”  For those perhaps concerned about the program’s impact on an already unprecedented federal deficit, President Obama added, “And let me be clear: We pay for this plan – this isn’t adding to the deficit; we’re paying for this plan – by ending the wasteful subsidies we currently provide to banks and private lenders for student loans.” 

A White Housefact sheet” on the program outlines several specific actions to be taken under the American Graduation Initiative.  To address the low completion rates found in many community colleges (the Brookings Institute notes that only one-third of community college students obtain a degree of any kind within six years of enrollment), President Obama’s plan will provide funds for community colleges that develop innovative strategies for addressing low completion rates among their students.  Additionally, funds will be earmarked for maintenance and renovation of out-dated buildings as well as for updating equipment and resources in labs and other “hands on” disciplines. 

Interesting for those in the online education community is President Obama’s plan to establish an “Online Skills Laboratory.”  “Teams of experts in content knowledge, pedagogy, and technology” will develop the courses and the Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor will work together to provide the courses online for free through one or more community colleges as well as the Defense Department’s learning network.  There has been little doubt that the Obama Administration understands the benefits of online learning; the Department of Education recently released a report that highlighted the effective and beneficial nature of online education (see my recent blog article on this topic). 

Many are touting the significance of the American Graduation Initiative.  A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), as saying, “’There’s never been a federal program anywhere close to this size targeted specifically at community colleges.’”  In an email to member presidents, Molly Corbett Broad, President of the American Council on Education (ACE), wrote, “The president should be applauded for his effort to enhance the good work being done at our nation’s community colleges.  This investment will go a long way toward meeting our nation’s work force needs at this critical time when the economy is struggling to rebound.” 

There is no doubt that America’s community colleges provide access to higher education for millions of American students and they will play an integral part in the president’s overall higher education agenda.  I have one concern regarding this program.  To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing that prohibits states from shifting money away from two year colleges to four year colleges.  If other initiatives relating to the Stimulus Act are any indication, I am concerned that this money will not prove to be incremental funding to community colleges, but instead will be a back-end subsidy of other programs inside the states most strapped for money.

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