New President Will Bring New Challenges for Colleges
Obama Focused on Community Colleges, but Will His Successor?
As the presidential campaign hurtles forward, a look at developments in federal higher education policy over recent years gives some concept of what the next president will confront in fashioning an agenda for community colleges. As explored below, Washington policymaking impacting community colleges has been well-nigh relentless. Furthermore, the colleges and their student bodies have changed in recent years in ways that policymakers need to be ready to respond to — regardless of who wins. If there’s one thing that community colleges aren’t, it’s static.
The Obama administration’s tenure has largely coincided with the Great Recession, which wreaked havoc with community college finances, and its aftermath. During the economic downturn community colleges absorbed deep public funding reductions that were even more severe than their four-year public counterparts. Community colleges responded in a variety of ways to keep providing services, albeit at a reduced scale in some places; but, simultaneously, enrollments surged, which helped compensate for the drop in direct public support.
Now, after a period of sustained economic growth and general improvement in state and local funding, many institutions find themselves facing sharp financial challenges from declining enrollments; overall, the sector has shrunk for each of the last four years. Another pressure on institutional finances are the significant and diverse reforms focused on student success that are being adopted across the country.
The Obama administration has undertaken an extremely ambitious higher education agenda that was often focused explicitly on community colleges, at times to the chagrin of other sectors. Previous presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have highlighted community colleges in different respects (and President George H. W. Bush signed the 1992 Higher Education Amendments at Northern Virginia Community College), but the Obama administration has advanced, and in some cases succeeded, in enacting new investments in community colleges and their students that are larger than anything seen previously. The plans have had innovative features as well.
Two of the most paradigm-breaking and large-scale proposals were the American Graduation Initiative (AGI) of 2009, and the America’s College Promise proposal of 2015. While quite different in substance, each represents a red-letter development in federal higher education policy. Not only were the proposals colossal in scale, they are notable for embodying a new, more substantive federal involvement in the practices of higher education institutions.
The AGI was informed by a “resources for results” approach that was predicated on community colleges setting specific goals for institutional success in exchange for dedicated federal funding. The notion of comprehensive success goals for undergraduate institutions was a new one for the federal government, even though it has long provided targeted grant funding to college and universities for specific activities. Under the AGI, community colleges seeking funding would have had to secure approval from the secretaries of education and labor (jointly administering the program) to use federal funds to pursue specific targets in institutional success. This is a far cry from the voucher-based federal student aid system, where students can use their Pell Grant or loan at the college of their choice, and other than ensuring that those colleges institutions meet some basic quality standards, the federal government has largely steered clear of setting any expectations relating to institutional outcomes — just as the colleges would have it. Although the AGI was not enacted, the TAACCT program that was enacted in its stead is similar in its strong emphasis on expected evidence-based outcomes for funded programs. In this respect, it is a ‘crown jewel’ of the Obama legacy.
The president’s America’s College Promise proposal was also a landmark federal undertaking by directly addressing an issue that the national government has always eschewed, and that is encouraging a specific national tuition policy — none — for most, if not all, community college programs. The plan also envisioned a major state role in sharing the cost and in ensuring that the supported programs were high quality. The ACP proposal is expensive and has not moved in the 114th Congress, but it has nonetheless catalyzed an amazing amount of change at the state and local levels.
The Obama Administration has advanced numerous other initiatives pushing higher education policy into new areas: First in the World Grants, bonus grants to institutions that graduate high numbers of Pell Grant students, tax incentives for business partnerships with community colleges, a new emphasis (and some resources) on apprenticeship are but a few. The administration has used its “experimental sites” authority to initiate new policy forays in using Pell Grants for dual enrollment, limiting loan amounts from that otherwise authorized, providing Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals and financing short-term programs with Title IV aid. The projects have long timelines but mark significant developments in federal policy.
Accompanying the Obama administration’s commitment to providing greater resources to community colleges and higher education overall has been a pronounced tendency to impose new regulations on institutions. Many of these have been extremely unpopular with community colleges, in part because they have stemmed from a desire to more aggressively monitor the for-profit industry. The litany of ambitious new regulatory policies that were not required by any change in law is dramatic: federal definition of credit hour, state authorization policies, gainful employment, Parental Loans for Undergraduate Students, borrower defenses to repayment and verification of student aid applicant information.
Less dramatic, but arguably of even greater impact than any of the policies described above, are the significant increases in student financial aid funding over the last decade. The expanded support is most striking with the Pell Grant program, which now reaches more than 3 million community college students annually — almost 40 percent of all for-credit students—and which buffered lowincome students against recession-triggered tuition increases. Political winds change, but the Pell Grant program retains its longstanding bipartisan support. Also of note is the creation in 2009 of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides up to $2,500 of support annually for qualifying individuals, an outgrowth of an Obama campaign proposal that built on the Hope Scholarship Tax credit. The Obama administration also championed the legislatively mandated transition to 100 percent direct lending, and expanded income-based repayment on loans, usage of which is growing rapidly. More than one-third of all fulltime community college students now take out a federal loan.
Deriving in spirit and some substance from the work of Margaret Spelling’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, the administration has emphasized the need for students, families and other policymakers to have better information about their college options. The Obama administration’s federal college ratings systems was one of the least popular higher education proposals in memory, but its ultimate manifestation, the College Scorecard, represents important advances in the information the federal government provides to the public. This includes average earnings of a college’s graduates as well as loan repayment rates, which likely will gradually replace cohort default rates as a measure of a college’s loan performance.
Community colleges have a variety of concerns about the scorecard, but its usability as well as the expanded data provided are major pluses.
Looking forward, the next president will confront an expanded federal engagement with community colleges from that ten years ago — financially as well as in terms of policy.
Some of the initiatives put into place or proposed over the last decade could continue to be pursued, or policy could go in new directions, including rollbacks; the relationship between Washington and colleges has never been straightforward and easy. What is certain is that community colleges and their students have much at stake. So community college leaders can expect to be as engaged as ever in the decisions made in Washington.
David Baime is the senior vice president of government relations and policy analysis of the American Association of Community Colleges. In this capacity, he guides the federal advocacy efforts of the nation’s community colleges.
This is a continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University, and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between the Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org or, call 512-813-2300.