On the heels of an administration that sometimes acted as if higher education could do little right, college leaders now have in the White House a president who seems to think their institutions have the answers to many of the country's problems.
From economic recovery to scientific discovery, President Obama has put higher education front and center in many of his most important policy goals. And on Friday, he added unemployment as the latest problem he believed colleges (and particularly community colleges) were uniquely positioned to help solve, and announced a relaxation of federal rules to make it easier for unemployed Americans to get more education or training.
"In a 21st century economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, education is the single best bet we can make -- not just for our individual success, but for the success of the nation as a whole," the president said in a speech during which he detailed government data showing 539,000 new unemployed workers in April. "So if we want to help people not only get back on their feet today but prosper tomorrow, we need to take a rigorous new approach to higher education and technical training. And that starts by changing senseless rules that discourage displaced workers from getting the education and training they need to find and fill the jobs of the future."
If the new president seems to have an almost automatic inclination to assume that higher education has the answers to federal problems, he usually cites data to back it up. "Right now, someone who doesn't have a college degree is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as someone who does," Obama said Friday.
Yet existing federal rules actually impede the ability of unemployed workers to go back for training, the president noted. Some states strip unemployed workers of insurance benefits if they enroll in certain kinds of education or training programs, deeming them to no longer be searching for a job. And federal financial aid regulations generally require college aid administrators to use the salary from an applicant's former job and his or her unemployment income in calculating eligibility for Pell Grants or other federal aid, often restricting eligibility.
"Well, that doesn't make much sense for our economy or our country," Obama said. "So we're going to change it. First, we'll open new doors to higher education and job training programs to recently laid-off workers who are receiving unemployment benefits. And if those displaced workers need help paying for their education, they should get it -- and that's why the next step is to make it easier for them to receive Pell Grants."
Under the administration's plan, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said she would send letters to all states directing them to inform all unemployed workers within their borders that they may be eligible for federal aid to return for college education or training. It also urges them to follow the example of Maine, which allows recipients of state unemployment benefits to keep them even if they are enrolled in a broad range of education or training programs. (In his speech, Obama cited the case of one woman, Maureen Pike, who took advantage of Maine's approach to get an associate degree in nursing after she lost her job as a physician's receptionist.)
And Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a letter to college financial aid officers Friday saying they could expand their use of "professional judgment" to expand assistance to unemployed workers. Professional judgment allows college officials, when appropriate, to adjust data they receive from the families of dependent students to account for special circumstances or changes in their situations. The Education Department sent a letter to colleges last month encouraging them to make better use of that flexibility to help students whose families' financial situations had been upended by economic turmoil.
The new letter informs college aid officers that if an unemployed worker applies for student financial assistance, the institution -- using the Labor Department-inspired letter the worker received from his or her state -- can alter the applicant's aid application to exclude the unemployment benefits and income from prior employment.
The department also said that to encourage colleges to more broadly use "professional judgment" for this purpose, it would temporarily soften standards that limit the proportion of cases in which institutions make such a determination -- standards designed to prevent fraud and abuse. "We will continue to monitor and enforce requirements for appropriate use of professional judgment, but recognize that appropriate use of professional judgment by a school is likely to increase in the current economic environment," the letter said.
"Together," Obama said, "these changes will increase access to education and opportunity for hundreds of thousands of workers who've been stung by this recession."
Many of those students, the president went on to say, will get that training at community colleges, which he called "one of America's underappreciated assets." And he used the occasion to make other two other pieces of news that could have bigger implications down the road.
First, Obama said he had asked Jill Biden, wife of the vice president and a professor at Northern Virginia Community College (and before that Delaware Technical & Community College), to lead a "national effort to raise awareness about what we're doing to open the doors to our community colleges."
The president also said that he would soon "lay out a fundamental rethinking of our job training, vocational education, and community college programs," designed "to move beyond the idea that we need several different programs to address several different problems -- we need one comprehensive policy that addresses our comprehensive challenges."
The idea of a major reworking of federal programs designed to help train and re-train workers -- which would presumably overhaul and/or replace the Education Department's Carl. D. Perkins Career and Technical Education program and the Labor Department's Workforce Investment Act program, both of which are major sources of funds for community colleges -- is likely to both excite and worry officials at two-year institutions and other career-oriented colleges.