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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 February 23 - 12:00 am

A Missed Opportunity?

 

Please forgive the leaders of community colleges if they were outwardly rooting for passage of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

But the cheering might have started too soon, giving way to a gnashing of teeth.

Higher education leaders who were heartened by a House of Representatives plan to add $150 billion to the U.S. Department of Education were disappointed when they learned  that the Senate had cut that sum to $83 billion  — still a vast amount, but far less than proponents had hoped for.

A compromise crafted by a House-Senate conference committee restored some of the education money, bringing the level of education spending in the package to about $100 billion.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had called for restoration of the education funding eliminated by the Senate.

“We need to push for every dollar we can get, because universities and community colleges desperately need that money to avert cuts,” Duncan told the annual meeting of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

Even as negotiations began between the House and Senate to reconcile the gap between their respective plans, two Washington think tanks said the stimulus package squanders a critical opportunity to aid community colleges now experiencing skyrocketing enrollments and shrinking spending.

As the debate in Washington over the full contours of the spending bill was taking shape, the influential Brookings Institution published an article saying the stimulus package overlooks the key role community colleges must play in the country’s economic recovery. 

 Sara Goldrick-Rabb, an assistant professor of education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, and Alan Berube, a Brookings Institution fellow, wrote that “the recovery package — and future federal higher education policy — must do more to help transform America’s community colleges.”

A Seat at the Table

 

“Our community college system, long on the sidelines in funding and policy debates, now needs a seat at the table,” they wrote. “Ensuring that American workers are trained to compete in the global market place, to earn a place in the middle class, to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens, requires expanding and improving their experience with post-secondary education. By better supporting the affordable and accessible higher education institutions found within all our communities…we can put the nation and its families back on the path to economic prosperity.”

The Brookings Institution, one of the nation’s oldest think tanks, is planning a paper that recommends a major shift in the relationship between the federal government and community colleges.

It will call for four key reforms: a focus on the national goals, based on a first-ever accountability system; increasing from $6 billion to $12 billion direct support for community colleges to help them reach the new goals; developing new student data system to enable the tracking of outcomes; and stimulating greater innovation in community college practices and policies to enhance educational quality.

But the paper also will contend that expanded funding alone is not enough. The added money must be used as a lever to extract better quality and improved student success at community colleges.

“Colleges receiving enhanced funds would be required to track and report student success, such as completion of a minimum amount of credits, earning a degree, and landing a good-paying job,” Goldrick-Rabb and Berube wrote. “Over time, a majority of federal dollars would be awarded not based on enrollment, but on colleges’ performance on these critical measures.”

Meanwhile, the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress is also calling for policy makers to pay more heed to community colleges and take steps to ensure that more students emerge from college with a degree or other credential assuring them a good job.

In a paper entitled “The Other College,” authors Molly F. McIntosh and Cecilia Elena Rouse said the time has arrived for policy makers to ensure community college students succeed.

“Two-year colleges have long been the stepchildren of the higher education family of institutions, despite the fact that they are the main contact with higher education for a large proportion of young people,” they wrote. “It’s time that policy makers and researchers alike recognize that the students who attend these institutions have different needs than the traditional four-year college student and that the institutions themselves may need to operate using different strategies regarding curriculum, teaching and learning, and student support services.”

“Given their popularity among today’s college students, America’s future economic success may well depend on how we invest in two-year institutions. National leaders would be wise to move the ‘other college’ to the forefront of the postsecondary policy arena.”

 

Under Pressure

 

The admonitions come at a time when the economic downturn is putting more pressure on community colleges than ever before. From coast to coast, the spike in unemployment has produced a corresponding increase in enrollment. At the same time, cash-strapped states are targeting colleges for large budget cuts and colleges are increasing tuition.

Community college leaders say tuition covers only a fraction of their costs, and  unlike their four-year brethren, two-year schools don’t have large endowments to make up for funding shortfalls.

In an article written for The Miami Herald, Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón — who recently was named to head the Association of American Colleges and Universities — said his institution is feeling the pain.

“Miami Dade College is struggling with a reduction in funding of more than $21 million, and forecasts for the coming year are dire,” he wrote. “But enrollment is soaring, up 15 percent in two years. That translates to more than 12,000 new, unfunded students — greater than the entire enrollment of many colleges. Funding is also nonexistent to hire new faculty, expand support labs and provide tutors, and least of all, upgrade vital classroom technology. We are faced with an untenable choice: limit enrollment and break an inviolable contract with the community; or allow the lack of funding to expand class size, diminish student support and flirt with mediocrity.”

“Our task is to reverse the momentum of recent years and value education as it was intended to be valued in the United States. A country that devalues education is a country that will not thrive.”

Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College system, recently told a community group that his state is seeing the same scenario.

“The more the economy turns down, the more our numbers go up,” Ralls said, according to media reports.  “There are great strains on the state budget like we’ve never seen before, certainly in the history of the community college system.”

In North Carolina, enrollment in community colleges has risen about 7 percent while funding has been cut about 5 percent.

“We haven’t yet received the numbers from the spring semester, but because many of the jobs that have been lost were lost after Labor Day, we expect to see an even greater increase,” Ralls said.

No corner of the country is unrepresented in the community colleges squeeze.

Maine reported spring enrollment increases of 20 percent, after laying off employees and leaving vacant positions open to cope with a $2.9 million state cut. Arizona community colleges have absorbed $19.3 million in cuts. Enrollment at Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges has reached 134,000 full-time equivalent students, an increase of more than 9,000 over the previous year. Most of the increase is due to  laid-off workers returning to school.

So college leaders were disappointed when they learned that the education component of the spending plan had been cut so drastically.

Most disturbing to education leaders was the choice of the Senate to zero out a House provision that called for $6 billion in spending on campus renovation projects.

The compromise plan provides $54 billion in aid to states, some of which can be used on educational facilities.

According to the supporters of the stimulus, the new spending represents an effort to assist  states in balancing their budgets and promote future economic growth.

“We cannot let our whole education system collapse as the economy falters,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. “Together, these investments will meet the most urgent challenges that we face: creating jobs that can’t get shipped overseas, and mitigating strained state and local budgets. We must make sure students aren’t the latest victims of the economic crisis.”

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