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President Obama and community colleges: the needs will only increase.

Throughout his political career, Barack Obama has strongly supported programs that expanded access to higher education. His new proposals regarding community colleges are logical extensions of programs he supported as an Illinois state senator and as a United States senator from Illinois.

As a presidential candidate, Obama proposed a national "Make College a Reality" initiative to expand the functional linkages between high schools and community colleges, with the goal of increasing by 50 percent the number of students taking advanced placement courses. Federal funding was proposed for community colleges to offer those courses if K-12 schools were unable to do so.

He also called for expanding the National College Advising Corps program, which places recent college graduates as peer-advisers and mentors in low income high schools and community colleges. This national demonstration program of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation funded 10 grants to flagship institutions around the nation to expand pathways for academically talented, economically disadvantaged students to access baccalaureate degrees. The University of Alabama operates one of these demonstration programs, partnering with rural community colleges that serve areas of persistently high rural poverty to lift up transfer and baccalaureate degree completion. In 2008-09, our 11 transfer advisers reached nearly 10,000 community college and high school students with good information about program and college fit, and financial aid information.

Since coming into office, two realities have commanded the attention of the president and his team in the White House and at the Department of Education: First, our nation is in the middle of the largest surge of students since the 1960s baby boom; second, the job loss since the summer of 2008 is stressing the ability of community colleges to simultaneously serve the much larger numbers of traditional aged students and the millions of additional unemployed workers.

These twin realities explain why he visited Macomb Community College to announce his new initiative. It is well-known that the economic downturn in Michigan preceded that of the rest of the country by several years. For the first time since the Grapevine began collecting data in 1960, declining public higher education operating budgets knocked Michigan from the top 9 states, behind North Carolina, a state smaller in population. Macomb Community College stands near, if not at, the epicenter of the economic turmoil the American economy today faces.

Just how large is the current enrollment surge? From 2000-01 to 2005-06, nearly 2.3 million new students have enrolled at America's community colleges, of whom over 1 million enrolled at rural community colleges. During this same period, average tuition rose by 65 percent, from $1,345 to $2,214, an increase of $869. Yet Pell Grants were kept flat in the Republican congresses. When Congress flipped after the 2006 elections, led by Congressman George Miller and Senator Ted Kennedy, long overdue expansions of the Pell Grant began.

Will it be enough? Are community colleges adequately funded and prepared internally to take on the twin challenges of serving an enrollment boom and the spike that will follow much higher rates of unemployment?

Without expanded federal help in the area of capacity building--facilities and direct grant aid to serve high school graduates and the recently unemployed, the clear answer is "no."

The Education Policy Center conducts an annual survey of finance and access issues of state directors of community colleges, to which 49 states responded in 2007 and 2008. Capacity is very clearly a major issue. Our 2007 special section on facilities revealed that:

* In the five years from 2002-03 to 2006-07, 10 states reported significant increases in deferred maintenance, 23 reported increases, and 12 reported deferred maintenance had stayed about the same.

* No state reported a decrease, and 7 of the 8 largest states reported significant increases.

* 18 states reported that their states were considering statewide bond issues for facilities, including four of the largest states.

Our special section on student financial aid in 2008 found:

* Investments in state student aid (need- or merit-based) are insufficient to allow low income community college students to work their way through college without debt, and do not keep pace with tuition increases. Excepting California, states have moved away from the goal of low or no tuition advocated by the 1970s-era Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education. Most report their state need-based student aid programs (36 states) and their merit-based state aid programs (34 states) are not funded well enough so that low income students can work their way through college without debt.

* "High tuition/high aid" does not work to expand access. A successful high tuition/high aid policy requires corresponding increases in state student aid every time tuition is increased. Yet when asked, "Are appropriations (operating budgets), tuition, and state student financial aid (merit and/or need-based) closely aligned in your state?" state directors answer "no" by a margin of nearly four to one, with 9 yes (17 percent) and 35 no (73 percent) Just two directors (4 percent) were not sure.

The bottom line is that community college operating support is declining in the states, lagging behind other education sectors. Our 2008 state directors' survey reported that the one-year drop in state operating budget support of 5.2 percent recorded from 2006-07 to 2007-08 was larger for community colleges than any other sector of public education With the loss by between 5 and 6 million Americans of their health insurance benefits since August 2008, millions more are forced to use Medicaid, thus nearly every state that today is having problems with balancing their state budgets also reported Medicaid as a leading budget driver in their state government's budget process. Fixing health care is essential to improving state higher education operating budgets, including community colleges, to meet the twin challenges of Tidal Wave II and helping Americans address the recession.

Our community college physical infrastructure has been overwhelmed by the greatest enrollment boom since many community colleges were established in the 1960s. This explains why some of our largest community college districts are capping enrollments.

And the enrollment boom will continue for the next 15 years. An as-yet unpublished study prepared by Matt DeMonBrun at the Education Policy Center, vividly shows this phenomenon. It found that between 1996 and 2009, the actual number of persons in the American population ages 18-24--the traditional college going years--rose from about 19.3 to 23.5 million. The projections show that the numbers of Americans ages 18 to 24 will grow by an additional 1 million persons from 2009 to 2012. These enrollment increases will continue as far as the eye can see.

All of this underscores the importance of the Obama administration's commitment to giving community colleges the tools they need to both expand access for traditionally aged students and serve the millions of unemployed and underemployed displaced by the current economic downturn. As candidates, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush promised a $5,000 Pell Grant, but neither was able to deliver. The new administration increased Pell funding from $4,100 to $5,380 in one year, yet the pace of tuition increases is such that even that figure may be too low. Capacity-building activities--a traditional federal role dating from the Surplus Property Act of 1947 that put up Quonset huts for student housing to serve returning WWII GIs--can be expected from the Obama Administration in the months ahead.




The author is president-elect of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges.

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Author:Katsinas, Stephen G.
Publication:Community College Week
Date:Aug 24, 2009
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