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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 March 7 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Avoiding The Budget AXE

Photo courtesy ACCT

Second Lady Jill Biden addresses the Community College National Legislative Summit. Listening from left are John J. ‘Ski’ Sygielski, chair, AACC Board of Directors; AACC President Walter G. Bumphus; ACCT President J. Noah Brown; and Peter E. Sercer Sr., chair, ACCT Board of Directors.

C   O   V   E   R     S   T   O   R   Y

Avoiding The Budget AXE

Trustees Convene in DC Amid 
Congressional Budget-Cutting Frenzy 

By Paul Bradley

WASHINGTON — It was no small irony that as community college trustees from 35 states gathered in Washington on Valentine’s Day, just a few miles away, on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Democrats and Republicans were waging partisan warfare over spending priorities.

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The event was the Community College National Legislative Summit, jointly sponsored by the Association of Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community Colleges. More than 1,100 community college leaders from around the country attended to review the groups’ legislative priorities and troop to Capitol Hill to share them with their elected representatives.

On the summit’s first day, President Obama submitted his fiscal year 2012 spending blueprint even as House Republicans started a debate that would lead a proposal to slash $61 billion from this year’s budget. Colleges leaders, meanwhile, were being coached and prodded to head to Capitol Hill, visit congressional offices and push the community college — a monumental challenge in a Congress dominated by determined budget-cutters.

“You guys need some help,” said David Wessel, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who now heads the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal and spoke to the group. “You represent what have become the twin evils in Washington: government and spending.”

Much had changed since the last time the group convened here two years ago, last year’s summit having been cancelled because of a snowstorm which buried the nation’s Capital. Back then, money from the $787 billion federal stimulus bill was flowing to college campuses and into the pockets of prospective students. President Obama had elevated community colleges to a prominent spot in the national debate over economy recovery. Students were coming to the schools in droves.

Two years later, the students are still coming, but almost everything else has changed.

Republicans took over the House on the 2010 mid-term elections and narrowed their margin the in Senate. Talk of investing in colleges and higher education to revive the economy has given way to promises of drastically reduced federal spending and reducing the federal deficit. All he while, the economy continued to change at warp speed, straining the capacity of government and educators to keep up.

“We are entering a period of big, big challenges,” said ACCT President and CEO Noah Brown. “But I would submit to you we have big, big opportunities. I am confident today that we’re up to the task of meeting these big opportunities. Without you and the nation’s community colleges, this nation will not be the nation is has been up until this point in history. It’s up to you.”

Taking a Back Seat

As the summit got under way, the battle over Obama’s 2012 budget seemed distant and remote, taking a back seat to the fight over funding for the current fiscal year, with a clash between House Republicans and Senate Democrats looming amid the prospect of a government shutdown. It seemed chaotic.

“You couldn’t be here at a better time,” Brown said.

Soon enough, however, attention with turn to the 2012 budget as Republicans and Democrats stake out positions in advance of the presidential election.

“It’s all about the budget,” said Vic Klatt, formerly the top education staff member in the House and now an education policy lobbyist. “Everybody is claiming to be reducing spending — the president, Congress, everyone.”

“It’s been a long time since I have seen such uncertainty…nobody really knows how this will turn out. There are so many moving parts it’s hard to keep track of them all.”

But at least one thing is clear. Budget-cutters on both sides of the aisle are targeting higher education — particularly the Pell Grant program, the country’s primary financial aid program for needy students, which in the past has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support.

“We have dueling proposals from a Democratic president and a Republican House majority to see which one can cut Pell Grants more,” Wessel said. “If you need any other reminder of the stakes you face, I can’t think of one.”

In some respects, it’s easy to understand why budget-cutters are targeting Pell — simply put, it’s where the money is. For the record, House Republicans want to reduce the maximum $5,500 annual Pell Grant by $845 in the current fiscal year and cut funding by $5.7 billion, or 15 percent. Obama, in his budget, wants to keep the maximum grant at $5,500, but eliminate the availability of year-round Pell Grants.

The Pell Grant program has been growing rapidly due to three primary factors: the lingering economic slowdown that has sent million of students back to school; an increase in the maximum grant award; and an expansion of the pool of eligible students. Two years ago, 6 million students received Pell Grants; the number has climbed to 9.5 million, including 3 million community college students. Pell now accounts for 46 percent of all federal Education Department spending, and the program could be facing a $20 billion shortfall next year, summit attendees were told.

“As the economy has tanked, and people have come to our doors, this program has come under immense strain,” said David Baime, AACC senior vice president for government relations and research. “Because spending has more than doubled over the past four years, they are going after this program.

Preserving Pell Grant program is the top priority of community colleges in both the current fiscal year and fiscal year 2012, and that’s the message that Congress needs to hear, Baime said.

Disproportionate Share

Like other targets of budget-cutters, educators said they are frustrated with a process which leaves the lion’s share of federal spending off the table. The House’s proposed cuts target “discretionary non-defense spending” — only about 15 percent of all federal spending.

“We are being asked to shoulder a disproportionate share of budget reductions,” Baime said. “From our perspective, that’s not fair, that’s not right.”

U. S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who serves as House whip, acknowledged that budget-cutters will broaden the scope of potential cuts as the presidential campaign takes hold.

“Everything needs to be on the table,” he said. “If we go and debate things this year, they may not pass, but they will go into play in the presidential campaign. That will be healthy.”

Pell Grants are not the only program drawing the gaze of budget-cutters. The House spending plan for the remainder of 2011 would abolish 56 education programs, including the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) and Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership (LEAP) programs. Funding for Hispanic-Serving Institutions would be cut by $100 million, while Historically Black Colleges and Universities would lose $85 million. In the president’s proposal, spending on career and technical education would be reduced by $265 million, or 20 percent.

College officials were urged to tell members of Congress that such cuts would undermine the goal of reducing unemployment and graduating five million more Americans with certificates and degrees by 2020.

Community colleges remain central to achieving that goal, said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. The financial challenges facing community colleges have not changed that, she said.

Solis said that with 14 million people out of work — and more than half of those unemployed for six months or more — community colleges must mirror the administration’s focus on putting people back to work and work closely with business and industry.

“You must be able to provide training that is transferable to a job,” she said. “The criteria isn’t a certificate anymore, but to cultivate your relationships with businesses to [ensure] a smooth transition.”

In the meantime, educators are going to hear a lot about budgets and spending over the next several months as the debate over the 2012 budget begins in earnest and intensifies, Klatt said.

“That is where the biggest fundamental debate on spending will take place,” he said. “That debate will go on until Christmas. One way or another, higher education policy changes will take place during this Congress. There is a good chance that education will be spared from some significant cuts. President Obama has signaled his support. But some programs are desperately in danger.”

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Q:  How will continued budget cuts impact your campus?
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