COVER STORY: 2009, Year in Review
C O V E R S T O R Y
2009: Year In Review
A Watershed Year Bolsters Colleges and Presents New Challenges
By Paul Bradley
Never before have community colleges experienced a year like they did in 2009. In many ways, it truly was the best of times and the worst of times.
Consider that President Barack Obama proposed spending $12 billion on community colleges over the next decade, catapulting the institutions to the center of the public debate on how best to revive the American economy. Obama had used community college campuses as a backdrop for his campaign appearances, and now he was citing colleges as essential to the nation’s well-being.
It marked the first time that the federal government pledged to make a direct investment in two-year schools, and the leaders of colleges, who often felt unappreciated, were elated.
But all that attention came with a price. The economic downturn sent students back to colleges in droves. Adults seeking to burnish skills in a sagging economy were joined by recent high school graduates looking for an affordable way to start their college educations. At the same time, the economic downturn drained tax coffers of cash, squeezing colleges between two distinct trends: sharply rising enrollment and significantly curtailed resources. Colleges were being called upon to do more with less.
As 2009 draws to a close, colleges are expected to continue to see record-high enrollments as the national economy evolves. But before we ring in 2010, here are the top community college-related stories of 2009.
CCWeek's Top Ten Stories of 2009:
1. Obama Announces $12B Community College Initiative
In July, community college leaders around the country enthusiastically embraced President Obama’s “American Graduation Initiative” — a proposal aimed at boosting the number of college graduates and training workers for emerging fields. The initiative calls for 5 million additional community college graduates by 2020. It calls for community colleges to increase their effectiveness and impact of community colleges. Funds will be used to modernize facilities and create new online learning opportunities. Education leaders said the proposal, which is still pending in Congress, was 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 Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. Obama unveiled his plan at Macomb Community College in Michigan. It was an appropriate setting; the state was reeling from the loss of auto jobs, and has an unemployment rate of 14.1 percent, the worst in the nation. Many of the lost jobs will never return, Obama said, and that places a premium on the need for students to hone new skills in emerging fields — a specialty of community colleges.
2. Colleges Squeezed as Enrollments Rise and Resources Shrink
In 2009, colleges large and small were being squeezed between sharply increasing enrollments and significant reductions in financial resources. Some colleges were capping enrollments, undermining their open-access mission. Others resorted to holding classes late at night or on weekends. Colleges, in short, were bursting at the seams and being asked to do more with less. “The financial strain that our colleges are experiencing cannot be overemphasized.” Boggs said. A study by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama found that despite unprecedented praise and attention, community colleges faced deep mid-year budget cuts. But according to center director Stephen G. Katsinas, the situation could have been worse. The Obama Administration’s American Recovery and Relief Act of 2009 – the stimulus package — provided billions of dollars in relief to states and forestalled even deeper budget cuts.
3. California Budget Crisis Bruises Community Colleges In State
Nowhere was the community college squeeze felt as acutely as in California, where a cascading series of events threw the nation’s most populous state into unprecedented budget tumult and led to record cuts in higher education spending. Months-long negotiations culminated with an all-night legislative session in Sacramento during which lawmakers cut $26 billion from the state’s $100 billion general fund budget, including record cuts to the state’s renowned community college system, the largest in the nation. The budget deal struck by lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut $6 billion from public school districts and community colleges on top of cuts enacted in the last fiscal year. According to community colleges leaders — whose 110 institutions enroll 70 percent of all higher education students in California — the cuts are undermining the very mission that defines them: access to higher education for all, especially the poor and disadvantaged. Officials were forced to cut classes and turn tens of thousands of students away. Chancellor Jack Scott said the system was at the breaking point and needs more resources.
4. Obama Moves To Reshape College Financial Aid System
While Obama’s health-care goals have commanded most of the attention from lawmakers and the media in 2009, his higher-education proposals were almost as ambitious. The president wants to transform the financial aid system for millions of students while greatly expanding the federal role on paying for higher education. At the center of his efforts are plans to expand the Pell Grant program for low-income students, making it an entitlement akin to Medicare and Social Security. Key to the effort is a consolidation of student lending that would give the U.S. Department of Education control of the system. The plan also gradually increases the maximum Pell Grant from $4,731 a year to $5,500. The House has passed the plan, while the Senate has yet to take it up. Terry Hartle, senior vice president
of the American Council on Education., told The Washington Post that said the administration’s plans are “the most fundamental rewriting of federal student aid policy in 35 years. These are big changes.”
5. Martha Kanter Named Second-in-Command At DOE
Community college leaders could barely conceal their enthusiasm when Martha J. Kanter, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California, was named by President Obama as undersecretary of education, the federal government’s top postsecondary education job. She became the first community college leader to ascend to the number two job in the U.S. Department of Education. Her appointment to a position overseeing all policies, programs and activities related to postsecondary education was powerful evidence that community colleges are shedding their second-class status in the eyes of prominent policymakers. A lifelong educator, Kanter said she welcomed the daunting challenge of increasing access to higher education. “I love my job, but when the president called, I couldn’t say no,” she said in an interview with Community College Week. “The president needs people who are committed to making a difference. I am.” Kanter said colleges should not merely be the starting point on a career but a place where a student can return again and again to improve and update their skills and knowledge as the economy evolves.
6. Jill Biden Continues Teaching Career at Va. Community College
If Kanter’s appointment affirmed ascendancy of community colleges, then the role of second lady Jill Biden was rich with symbolism. The wife of Vice President Joseph Biden took a job with Northern Virginia Community College as an adjunct professor of English shortly after arriving in Washington. In addition to teaching, she has traveled the country as an ambassador promoting community colleges. Her hiring was hardly surprising. She is a longtime community college educator, having taught at Delaware Technical & Community College since 1993. When she took the job, she became the first second lady to pursue her own career outside of Washington. But Jill Biden always has been an unconventional political wife. She never moved to Washington during her husband’s political career and rarely campaigned for her husband over the years. That changed during the 2008 campaign. But all the while, she never stopped working. Each Monday to Friday, she taught a developmental English course and a college-level English composition class. On weekends, she hit the campaign trail.
7. Bill Gates Cements Role As Leading Community College Benefactor
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates continued in 2009 to use much of his riches to help community colleges through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In June, the foundation announced $16.5 million in grants to 15 community colleges and five states to expand successful remedial education programs, an effort aimed at boosting college completion rates of low-income students and students of color. That was followed in October by $1 million in grants to improve college graduation rates and accountability. Under that initiative, several colleges will voluntarily adopt a system of metrics to measure community college success. In December, the foundation announced $12.9 million in technology-related grants aimed at changing how students leverage technology in community college classrooms. Together, the initiatives are intended to dovetail with the Obama administration’s efforts to boost community colleges. Said Hillary Pennington, the foundation’s director of Education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives, “Too many institutions have not developed powerful and effective ways to accelerate academic progress for students who start college under-prepared. By working together, states, community colleges, and local school districts can design programs to accelerate high-quality learning and shorten the amount of time it takes to earn a degree.”
8. Colleges Launch Efforts To Help Vets as GI Bill Boosts Enrollment
The Post 9-11 GI Bill, the most comprehensive education benefit offered to veterans since the original GI Bill for World War II veterans was passed in 1944, became law. Benefits for eligible veterans now include four years of in-state undergraduate tuition and fees, room and board, book stipends, tutoring fees and relocation costs. The legislation was of particular importance to community colleges, since they long have been the primary choice of veterans seeking an education after serving their country. A study by the American Council on Education found that 43 percent of all military undergraduates pursuing a post-secondary education were enrolled in community college in 2007-08, compared to 21 percent who attended four-year colleges. The more generous benefits caused colleges across the country to make the transition from combat to the classroom easier. Their work is expected to grow. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 8 million veterans will be eligible for tuition benefits under the new GI Bill.
9. Troubles Continue To Roil the Alabama Two-Year College System
Alabama’s long-running two-year college scandal claimed legislators, a community college system chancellor and prominent businessmen, but appeared to be nearing an end. The federal investigation has resulted in charges, guilty pleas or convictions of 15 people, including former state Rep. Sue Schmitz. She was convicted in February of not working for the pay she collected for her two-year college system job. She was sentenced to 30 months in prison and must repay $177,000 in salary. She must report to prison before the end of December. Former system Chancellor Roy Johnson, who was fired in 2006 and pleaded guilty to 15 charges of accepting $1 million in kickbacks in 2008, spent the year co-operating with federal prosecutors and is scheduled to be sentenced to prison on Feb. 24. In the meantime, the state Board of Education picked Freida Hill, deputy commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, as the system’s chancellor. Hill replaces Bradley Byrne, who resigned in May to run for governor.
10. George Boggs Announces Plans to Retire as Leader of AACC In Dec. 2010
In October, one of the most influential leaders in the community college movement announced plans to retire. George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) for a decade and a community college advocate for more than 40 years, said he would retire effective Dec. 31, 2010. In announcing his decision to step down, Boggs said he plans to return to his native California. Boggs began his tenure at AACC in 2001, succeeding David R. Pierce and becoming the organization’s eighth CEO. Over the following decade, he helped lead an unprecedented period of achievement and recognition for community colleges. Prior to joining AACC, Boggs served for more than 15 years (1985-2000) as president/superintendent of Palomar Community College District, serving San Diego County and enrolling more than 26,000 students. Before going to Palomar, he was associate dean of instruction (1981-85), division chair (1972-81) and instructor of chemistry at Butte College in Oroville, Calif. A national search for the new AACC president will begin early in 2010, with the executive committee of the AACC board coordinating the effort on behalf of the 32-member board