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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 August 26 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Historic Downturn, Unprecedented Opportunity

Historic Downturn,
Unprecedented Opportunity
Obama’s Community College Plan Elicits Both Praise and Concern

By Paul Bradley

At the outset of the 2009-10 academic year, a recession of historic proportions has presented the nation’s community colleges with an opportunity of unprecedented scope.

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By proposing to spend $12 billion on improving community colleges over the next decade, President Barack Obama has catapulted the two-year institutions to the top of his public education agenda, in the process giving the schools a large measure of the respect they so desire and putting them at the center of the nation’s economic recovery efforts.

Obama’s American Graduation Initiative is the underpinning of what some observers call an audacious goal: By the year 2020, the president hopes, America will once again lead the world in the percentage of its population who earn a college degree, a measure in which the country now ranks tenth. In the process, Obama wants to boost the number of community college graduates by 5 million by 2020.

In pursuing his goals, Obama’s aims appear to be as much economic as they are educational. In announcing his initiative, he used as a backdrop Macomb Community College outside Detroit, a region wracked by the economic downturn.

“The hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won’t be coming back,” he said. “They are casualties of a changing economy. And that only underscores the importance of generating new businesses and industries to replace the ones we’ve lost, and of preparing our workers to fill the jobs they create. For even before this recession hit, we were faced with an economy that was simply not creating or sustaining enough new, well-paying jobs.”

Betting on Education

“Time and again, when we have placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result — by tapping the incredible, innovative and generative potential of a skilled American workforce,” he said. “ That is what happened when President Lincoln signed into law legislation creating the land grant colleges which not only transformed higher education, but also our economy. That is what took place when President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill which helped educate a generation – and usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity.”

Obama’s speech came a day after the Council of Economic Advisers released a report describing how the U.S. labor market is expected to grow and develop in the coming years. The CEA described an expected shift toward jobs that require workers with greater analytical and interactive skills.

The legislation embodying Obama’s goals has begun to work its way through Congress, although the headline writers and political pundits have long since turned their attention to the health care debate. HR 3221 — the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act — has passed the key House education committee. It won’t be considered by the full House or the Senate until lawmakers return from their August recess.

But as the contours of the legislation begin to take shape, some community college leaders are conflicted. They welcome the potential infusion of $12 billion into their schools, but also wonder whether even that vast sum — spread over ten years and among 1,200 colleges — will be enough.

“President Obama’s initiative provides only a small fraction of the money needed to do the job of skilling up America’s workforce,” said Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College. “It is not much money to make a lot happen. But it can provide the initial resources to jump start colleges that lack the capacity to initiate or expand training and education programs in fields where new jobs are likely to grow, such as in medical information management and energy technologies to name a couple. The key will be that funding will need to be ongoing and that states will need to increase their financial support for community colleges in the years ahead.”

Pressing Needs

The proposal does little to meet the most pressing need at today’s community colleges – expanding their capacity so they can accommodate the thousands of new students who are flooding campuses across the country.

But that is as it should be, said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, which promotes access to higher education and works closely with community colleges through its Achieving the Dream initiative.

“In terms of funding, what we can’t do is let the states off the hook,” he said. “What we want is the use of federal resources to improve community colleges, improve their ability to effectively graduate those who come through the door. We don’t want to federalize the system.”

Merisotis praises the legislation for acknowledging that education and economic development programs need to be closely aligned.

“What we are starting to see at the federal level is an effort to really talk about education and economic development at the same time,” he said. “I think there has been a reluctance in higher education to do that. But education is a workforce development program.”

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha J. Kanter, a former community college chancellor, said the bill is not aimed primarily at expanding college capacity.

Rather, the community college initiative is designed to foster innovation, improve college access and boost college completion rates — especially among populations that traditionally have found higher education to be beyond their grasp.

The hope is that successful programs can be quickly replicated around the country.

“The president is focusing on how we can get 5 million more people to get a college degree,” she said. “The emphasis is on closing the achievement gap.”

Investing in Innovation

The proposed legislation also embraces a hallmark of Obama’s governing style: devoting federal dollars to the most promising avenues, rather than financing old ways of doing things. To that end, colleges will be required to develop benchmarks on things such as improving enrollment and completion rates, meeting local workforce needs and establishing articulation agreements with four-year colleges.

While some community college leaders fret that the benchmarks mean that grant money will come with too many strings attached, others disagree. Transparency, accountability and success rates are now the coin of the realm in higher education, they believe.

Enforceable benchmarks are a good idea, said Debra D. Bragg, director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois.

“I welcome them,” she said. “We need to strike a balance between helping community colleges, and assuring that the money is used to produce results. It is important for community colleges to see that the work they do is part of the larger community college movement.”

Donald Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University, said the legislation must embrace benchmarks if it is to pass congressional muster and become law.

“Congress is not going to just dump money into community colleges,” he said. “They will want to make sure there are positive outcomes. There is going to be a lot of discussion about that.”

But crafting the language of the benchmarks, and applying them fairly across the broad, diverse spectrum of community colleges, will be a challenge, Bragg said.

“Some of the larger colleges, the ones that have institutional research arms, they will have an advantage,” she said. “It’s a real concern. Will the colleges that are already in the game make it tough for colleges that do have the institutional research capacity to compete? We will have to find a way to level the playing field.”

Merisotis said the way to do that is to measure each college individually.

“You have to judge institutions on their own baseline,” he said. “You want to capture where they are now, and how they are progressing. There should be some improvements demonstrated, but when you are making comparisons across institutions, that can be very troubling.”

He added that lawmakers and educators must assure that the money is used to achieve its stated goals. At the state level, lawmakers will need to resist the urge to use the federal money to backfill their ailing state budgets.

“It really would be a missed opportunity if these resources are used to make up shortfalls at the state level,” Merisotis said. “The stimulus money was designed for that. We need to make sure that the legislation remains true to its objectives and is used to improve our community colleges.”

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