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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 July 28 - 12:00 am

DATELINE WASHINGTON: College Leaders Welcome $12 Billion Obama Initiative on Two-Year Schools

Community college leaders around the country are welcoming President Barack Obama’s $12 billion commitment to the nation’s 2-year colleges as a historic vote of confidence in their institutions.

“It underscores the central role of these institutions to ensure an educated U.S. citizenry and a competitive workforce,” said George S. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “We are deeply grateful for the added capacity this support will provide to meet the challenge of economic recovery today and to expand opportunity for the future.

For Boggs and others, the federal aid can’t come too soon. Colleges around the country are being squeezed between sharply increasing enrollments and shrinking financial resources, stoking fears that hundreds of thousands of students could be turned away this fall.

“The financial strain that our colleges are experiencing cannot be overemphasized.” Boggs said. “New federal assistance will help our colleges weather the current financial storm but, just as importantly, position community colleges to help sustain the nation’s long-term prosperity.”

Obama traveled to Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., to unveil his plan to help community colleges prepare millions of people for a new generation of jobs. It was an appropriate setting. The state is reeling from the loss of auto jobs, and has an unemployment rate of 14.1 percent, worst in the nation.

Obama said many of the jobs that have disappeared over the past several months have vanished forever.

“The hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won’t be coming back,” Obama said. “They are the casualties of a changing economy.”

To address the situation, the president proposed an “American Graduation Initiative” to bolster the two-year community college, which millions of students used as a launching point for careers or a step toward expanded higher education. The idea behind the initiative is to train people for jobs in emerging fields — such as the clean energy industry — when the economy turns around and begins to create jobs again instead of shedding them.

The linchpin of the plan is 
$9 billion in competitive grants that would be offered to schools to try new programs or expand training and counseling.

The low graduation rates afflicting community colleges would be combatted by designing programs to track students and help them earn an associate degree or finish their education at a four-year institution. Money would also be spent to renovate and rebuild facilities, and online courses would be developed to help colleges offer more classes.

The White House says the cost would be $12 billion over 10 years; Obama says it would be paid for by ending wasteful subsidies to banks and private lenders of student loans.

“Time and again, when we have placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result,” Obama said.

Obama called the plan “the most significant down payment” yet toward achieving his goal of having the highest college graduation rate of any nation. Indeed, direct federal aid to community colleges is about $2 billion a year, so the new program represents a huge jump in support from Washington.

Obama noted that jobs requiring at least an associate degree are expected to grow twice as fast as those where college education is not required.

“We will not fill those jobs, or keep those jobs on our shores, without the training offered by community colleges,” Obama said. About 12 million students attend community college. Obama is setting a goal of 5 million additional college graduates by the year 2020.

Community colleges have been feeling pinched lately. Enrollments have been increasing for several reasons, including rising college costs at public and private institutions and the needs of people who have lost jobs and are eager to learn new skills.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, also welcomed the plan.

“I applaud the president for his effort to enhance the good work being done at our nation’s community colleges,” she said. “This investment will go a long way toward meeting our nation’s work force needs at this critical time when the economy is struggling.”

Business leaders also praised the plan. William D. Green is chairman of the Business Roundtable’s Education and Workforce Initiative.

 “We welcome the commitments made by the president to America’s workers,” he said.

“We recognize the need for a greater collaborative effort between businesses and education institutions — especially community colleges — to ensure that workers are adequately prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs. We also need to institutionalize lifelong learning as an individual and collective imperative,” he added.

But the plan also encountered some criticism.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former education secretary, said Obama’s plan is a “typical proposal” that sounds better than it is.

“When our biggest problem as a country is too much debt, he’s taking the entitlement spending he claims to be saving from the student loan program and adding it to the debt,” Alexander said.

Frederick Hess, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a blog that the vast infusion of new funds could short-circuit efforts to reform community colleges and improve their dismal graduation rates.

“Instead of fresh thinking or tough choices, the president appears set on pumping more dollars into outmoded systems so that they can give credentials of uncertain value to more students,” he wrote. “Are community colleges up to the challenges they face? Are there better ways to support essential training and instruction? These are questions the president leaves untouched — meaning that the billions to produce ‘5 million more’ graduates is less likely to prove a blueprint for transformation than a subsidy of the status quo.”

Associated Press reports are included in this story. 

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