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Historic downturn, unprecedented opportunity: Obama's community college plan elicits both praise and concern.



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.

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 Leader ship 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."


Summary of Key Provisions of Community College Initiative

President Obama's $12 billion proposal to boost the number of college graduates by 5 million by the year 2020 and aid community colleges includes several components. They make federal aid available to college districts, but also create new accountability standards and call for systemic reform of the nation's community colleges over the next decade. The initiative would be paid for by reforming the federal student loan program.

Here is an outline of the bill, called the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. The bill would:

* Create a new community college challenge grant program aimed at transforming community colleges into productive education and job training centers. Colleges would be compelled to work with local employers, improve their student support services, and implement other innovative reforms that will lead to a college degree, certificate or credential to fulfill local workforce needs. The Secretary of Education will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of all programs and policies funded through these grants by using 2 percent of these funds to commission the Institute for Education Sciences to conduct a study to determine which reforms could be replicated at other colleges and states.

* Create incentives for community colleges by requiring them to meet benchmarks in order to participate in the challenge grant program. Under the program, the Secretaries of Education and Labor will award four-year grants to community colleges on a competitive basis to support innovative pilot programs and policies. In order to continue to receive funding for year three of the grant period, community colleges must meet benchmarks they establish in consultation with the Secretary of Education's approval. The minimum grant that can be awarded is $1 million. Funds can be used to carry at least two of the following activities: expanding academic and training programs that provide training for high-wage occupations in high-demand industries; improve student support services; create workforce programs that blend basic skills and occupational training and leading to an industry-recognized certificate; build and enhance education linkages, including dual enrollment programs and early college high schools, and improve remedial and adult education programs; and implementing reform programs to increase completion rates.

* Establish the College Access and Completion Fund, which is intended to improve to improve student success, completion, and post-completion employment, particularly for students from groups that are underrepresented in postsecondary education. States could get assistance in developing longitudinal data systems, common metrics, and reporting systems to enhance the quality and availability of information about student success, completion and post-completion employment. The bill authorizes $600 million in each of the fiscal years 2010-2014.

* Ensure that more students graduate with the expertise needed for high wage jobs and high-demand industries. Grants will be targeted to high-need students and programs that focus on preparing students for jobs in fields that need workers and will continue to grow. The secretaries would also be able to award six-year competitive grants to states to implement successful Challenge Grant Program reforms, but funding could be discontinued if the state does not make progress meeting benchmarks by year three of the grant period.

* Expand access to education by supporting free on-line courses. The Education department would be authorized to make competitive grants to colleges, workforce programs and other entities to support development of the courses. The secretary of education would be allowed to allocate $50 million a year in each fiscal year between 2010 and 2019.

* Provide $2.5 billion in to states in fiscal year 2011 for the construction of new community college facilities and modernizing, renovating, and repairing existing facilities. The facilities must be used primarily used for instruction, research, or student housing.

* Establish the Learning and Earning Research Center. The Secretary of Education would be authorized to award up to $150 million to a nonprofit organization to operate the center. The center would develop metrics on the effectiveness of community colleges in meeting education and employment objectives, and develop and disseminate materials analyzing best practices and research on successful postsecondary education and training efforts.

* Allow the secretary of education to award up $150 million to establish multi-state agreements to develop, implement, and expand longitudinal data systems that collect, maintain, disaggregate, and analyze student data from community colleges, including data on programs of study and education and employment outcomes for particular students over time. Systems would have the capability to link to other data systems, including elementary and secondary education and workforce systems. Funds received under this section must supplement, not supplant, other Federal and state resources that would otherwise be expended to carry out statewide longitudinal data systems.

* Order the Institute of Education Sciences to conduct a rigorous evaluation by Jan. 30, 2014, that assesses the effectiveness of the grant programs carried out by each eligible entity in improving postsecondary education completion rates and employment-related outcomes, serving high-need populations, and building or enhancing partnerships with state or local workforce investment boards.

Hottest Careers for College Graduates

Government economists estimate which occupations will have the most
job openings between 2006 and 2016. Openings occur because new jobs
are created and because workers retire or leave the field for other

* Occupations with the Most Jobs Openings: Associate Degrees or
Postsecondary Vocational Awards

 Total Job
Occupation Openings 2006-2016

Registered nurses 1,001,000

Nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants 393,000
Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses 309,000
Automotive service technicians and mechanics 265,000
Computer support specialists 242,000
Preschool teachers, except special education 187,000
Hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists 151,000
Real estate agents 115,000
Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers 107,000
Fitness trainers and aerobics instructors 107,000

* Occupations with the Most Job Openings: Bachelor's Degrees

 Total Job
Occupation Openings 2006-2016

Elementary school teachers, except special
 education 545,000
Accountants and auditors 450,000
Secondary school teachers, except special
 and vocational education 368,000
Computer software engineers, applications 300,000
Computer systems analysts 280,000
Middle school teachers, except special and
 vocational education 217,000
Network systems and data communications analysts 193,000
Securities, commodities, and financial services
 sales agents 161,000
Network and computer systems administrators 154,000
Construction managers 152,000

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics produce results.

Note: Table made from bar graph.
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Author:Bradley, Paul
Publication:Community College Week
Date:Aug 24, 2009
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