The Obama Plan

Community college leaders praise its unprecedented attention and many campus leaders say the $12 billion could be crucial. Others warn not to view the president's agenda as a panacea.
July 15, 2009

President Obama, as he promised he would, placed community colleges Tuesday in the center of his plans to revitalize the American economy. He proposed billions in new spending -- for job training programs, improvements in basic skills education, facilities and free online education -- to focus on two-year institutions.

In words that community college educators have longed to hear, he stressed the importance of community colleges in broadening access to American higher education, and he specifically rebuked the way these institutions have often been ignored in favor of elite institutions. "Community colleges are treated like the stepchild of the higher education system; they're an afterthought, if they're thought of at all," Obama said, in a speech at Macomb Community College.

While the president praised community colleges, he also criticized them, saying that too few students complete programs and that not all job training is relevant. "I know that for a long time there have been politicians who have spoken of training as a silver bullet and college as a cure-all," Obama said. "It's not, and we know that. I can't tell you how many workers who've been laid off, you talk to them about training and they say, 'Training for what?' So I understand the frustrations that a lot of people have, especially if the training is not well designed for the specific jobs that are being created out there."

The president's speech left many community college leaders enthusiastic. "This is a great day to be in a community college," said Juan Mejia, vice president for academic affairs at South Texas College, an institution adding thousands of students a year that wants help to grow.

Community college presidents said that the president had identified areas where their institutions badly need support, such as dealing with facilities that are outdated and bulging with students. Experts on distance education at community colleges said that the president's proposals on creating free online courses could be historic and transformative.

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Amid the exuberance, some experts on community colleges warned that the Obama plan -- however worthy -- was addressing only some of the problems facing community colleges, and that it was important not to view the proposal as a panacea. Within the broader higher education world, the proposal won support, but parts of it worry private college leaders.

Obama framed his talk around a goal of helping an additional 5 million Americans earn degrees and certificates at community colleges in the next decade, which relates to the president's larger goal of having the United States have the highest graduation rate of any country in the world. George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, called the goal "pretty ambitious," but said that "with the resources, we can do it." Based on current completion rates, that would be a 50 percent increase in the number of people who earn a certificate or degree, Boggs said.

"Not since the passage of the original GI Bill and the work of President Truman's Commission on Higher Education -- which helped to double the number of community colleges and increase by sevenfold enrollment in those colleges -- have we taken such a historic step on behalf of community colleges in America," Obama said. "And let me be clear: We pay for this plan -- this isn't adding to the deficit; we're paying for this plan -- by ending the wasteful subsidies we currently provide to banks and private lenders for student loans. That will save tens of billions of dollars over the next ten years. Instead of lining the pockets of special interests, it's time this money went towards the interests of higher education in America. That's what my administration is committed to doing."

Where the Billions Would Go

Assuming Obama can get Congress to go along with his plans on student loans (and he is making progress, but is not there -- see related article), his community college program would involve several parts. The largest would be a $9 billion fund for competitive grants to community colleges. One set would focus broadly on job training, but might include expanded course offerings in key areas, programs to align offerings with job needs, and efforts to improve remedial and adult education.

The other area that would receive support from the $9 billion would be a grant program focused on community college completion. Colleges would receive funds to create, improve and evaluate efforts to encourage program completion or to identify and spread good practices. Obama said community colleges need to do more to improve completion rates. When students drop out, he said, "That's not just a waste of a valuable resource, that's a tragedy for these students. Oftentimes they've taken out debt and they don't get the degree, but they still have to pay back the debt. And it's a disaster for our economy."

Another $2.5 billion would be used to back loans to community colleges to build and renovate facilities. And $500 million would be awarded to create online instructional materials that would be available free to community colleges and their students. The Departments of Defense, Education and Labor will work with one or more community colleges and the Pentagon's learning network to find ways to award credit "based on achievement rather than class hours," and to "rigorously evaluate the results," according to the White House briefing materials on the program.

In his remarks, Obama talked about how this effort could both create courses where they aren't offered and create educational materials for courses that exist. "Even as we repair bricks and mortar, we have an opportunity to build a new virtual infrastructure to complement the education and training community colleges can offer," he said. "So we're going to support the creation of a new online, open-source clearinghouse of courses so that community colleges across the country can offer more classes without building more classrooms. And this will make a big difference especially for rural campuses that a lot of times have struggled to attract students and faculty.

"And this will make it possible for a professor to complement his lecture with an online exercise, or for a student who can't be away from her family to still keep up with her coursework. We don't know where this kind of experiment will lead, but that's exactly why we ought to try it because I think there's a possibility that online education can provide especially for people who are already in the workforce and want to retrain the chance to upgrade their skills without having to quit their job."

An early draft of the Obama plan, reported on here last month, specifically said that the funds to create online courses would be open to institutions beyond community colleges, including for-profit colleges. The materials released by the White House Tuesday were vague on the matter, and some lobbyists said that they interpreted comments in their briefings to mean that only community colleges would create the courses.

Asked via e-mail Tuesday if for-profit colleges and others could seek these funds, Robert Shireman, deputy under secretary of education, said: "Online course development would be by any type of entity, and the courses would be in the public domain and therefore could be used by anyone. (We will work with a community college to make sure there is a place that offers credit for the courses, but it would not be exclusive)."

'A Shift in Thinking and Funding'

The reaction of many community college leaders to the overall plan was close to ecstatic on the billions proposed -- and the attention coming from the White House.

Barry W. Russell, president of the South Carolina Technical College System, said that two-year institutions "have learned to do much more with much less," but that surging enrollment has made that increasingly difficult. "The news today of a $12 billion investment in the nation's community colleges gives us hope that we will see a shift in thinking and funding," he said.

Many community colleges said that the various programs proposed would make it possible for them to meet student demand for courses -- which they have feared they would soon be unable to do. Andrew J. Matonak, president of Hudson Valley Community College of the State University of New York, said that his campus was built to serve 6,000 students and now has more than 13,000 as it prepares for the third straight year of record enrollments. He said that the college has expanded courses offered online, and in the early morning, or nights or weekends, but that "the bottom line is that we have to build capacity."

He added that the reason the facilities funds are so important is that "right now our states are in a very difficult position and our counties are in a very difficult position, and during peak hours we are absolutely maxed out."

Stephen M. Curtis, president of the Community College of Philadelphia, said that his college's annual head count has been around 35,000 -- and is expected to be up 11 percent in the fall. As the college has focused on offering sections to keep up with demand, he said, spending on facilities has lagged, and he thinks the college should invest more there -- especially in science and health fields. "We badly need more science laboratories," he said, and funds could allow not only for increased enrollment in these fields, but for better training for existing students.

Across the country, John Neibling, president of Clovis Community College, in New Mexico, said that facilities funds "could not come at a better time. Most of our college facilities are aging, and enrollment is going through the roof." He said this summer's enrollment is up 30 percent over last year.

Obama spoke at a community college in Michigan, which has been facing economic difficulties that are more severe than those in much of the country. Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, said that "anything the feds can do to provide capacity money is good. Right now students in high demand programs are going to be put on waiting lists and turned away."

Why Completion Rates Matter

Several of the presidents also praised Obama for focusing on completion rate issues, and said that he was drawing much needed attention to the issue. For years, many community colleges have had graduation rates in the teens -- and while that figure is low in part because many community college students don't want degrees, it also reflects students who did, but failed to get them. Of late, educators and foundations have been focusing more on graduation rates, with the City University of New York starting programs and planning a new model of community college to focus on getting students degrees, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education spending big on efforts to improve remedial education and graduation rates.

Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, said that Obama was endorsing those movements and suggesting that "we need to rethink the process" of how students enter community colleges. Too many students today need remedial work, get discouraged by that, and drop out, "and the Obama message is that community colleges need to change," Templin said.

Northern Virginia is a member of Achieving the Dream, an effort to help community colleges collect data to inform policies that will minimize the need for remediation and improve graduation rates. As an example of the kind of program his college is starting, Templin pointed to Pathway to the Baccalaureate, in which the college is working with 3,500 at-risk high school students in the region, trying to help them plan junior and senior years so they won't need remediation, or as much of it. "If we get more of our students college-ready, we can double our graduation rates," he said, and meet the Obama goals.

At the Community College of Philadelphia, Curtis said that his institution is trying to reach those who did drop out, with a program called My Degree Now. Anyone with at least 30 college credits is told that the college will help them earn an associate degree, free of tuition or fees. Curtis said this is the kind of program that needs more support -- in his case, a philanthropist is paying for those whose costs aren't covered by federal student aid.

Advocates for online learning also viewed Obama's plans as significant. Fred Lokken, associate dean of Truckee Meadows Community College for its WebCollege, said this was "the very first comprehensive effort by the federal government that recognizes the importance of online learning." Lokken, board chair of the Instructional Technology Council, a body of the American Association of Community Colleges that works on technology issues, said that the government in this plan was "embracing online education" while also stressing the importance of "standard of rigor and quality."

Catherine M. Casserly, who studies technology issues at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said she saw the program leading to "a dual approach," in which students could view the new material or community colleges would get well-prepared material around which local instructors could plan instruction. "Anyone will be able to pick up" the online materials "and to innovate," she said. The online courses can promote "a consistent curriculum," which the new mechanism for awarding credit would encourage, she said. But local instructors could reach "each student with individual" attention, she said.

"This is exactly what the open model allows," she said. But people shouldn't think of this as "just putting the courses out there," but as changing the role of who provides the curricular materials and what instructors do. The students will gain the most, she said.

What Obama Can't Fix

To the extent that any advocates for community colleges expressed worries about the Obama plan, their reservations had to do not so much with the plan but with broader problems facing the institutions.

Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, said he was pleased with what the president is doing. But he said people need to know that "the federal money isn't going to stem the tide" in his state, where some feel that the number of students that will be turned away in the next year could reach a quarter million. "The operating budgets of community colleges rest with state and local governments," he said. They won't be able to make major improvements "if you have no base budgets," however favorable the federal ideas are, Lightman said.

"It's very hard to supplement something if the base is being undermined," he said. "We can't look at this as a panacea."

Stella M. Flores, an assistant professor of higher education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, who studies the impact of federal policies on disadvantaged students, said she saw promise in the Obama plan, but that it left key issues unaddressed.

Flores said that Obama deserves credit for "a show of unprecedented support of an often ignored sector of higher education in American public policy," and that this focus could have a real impact on degree attainment.

But she said that "additional factors" also need attention. For instance, she said that while "modernizing facilities and curriculum is a plus," "attention must also be paid to modernize the skills of the faculty. More research should be conducted on the needs, skills, and training of community college faculty." And she said she would like to see more attention to "the path to a B.A." once the students Obama envisions graduating from community college do so. As valuable as an associate degree is, she said that "the generational and economic impact of a bachelor’s degree for a first-generation student can constitute an exponential jump."

Generally the Obama plan won strong support Tuesday from the Democrats who control Congress. Republicans -- who are also skeptical about the loan changes Obama will use to pay for the programs -- are more dubious. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Education and Labor, called the community college ideas "another massive entitlement program -- not to mention concerns about the federal government telling community colleges how to do their jobs."

Similar concerns about federal direction are coming from private colleges. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities had no official reaction Tuesday to the Obama proposals. But an e-mail message to members from NAICU President David Warren, sent out this week and obtained by Inside Higher Ed, raised concerns about the program (before it was officially announced).

Warren said that "recognizing the contributions of community colleges is appropriate. Few would question their important role in our higher education system. However, there are some disturbing signs that enthusiasm for expanding their role may drive policy decisions that are both unfair and unwise."

The plans "have the federal government providing funds directly to one sector of American higher education, to the exclusion of other sectors. These plans also raise concerns that the federal government may become involved in college curricula -- a step that could seriously erode the academic independence and autonomy that is the cornerstone of our higher education system," Warren wrote.

He added: "Especially troubling is the fact that there may be no meaningful opportunity to examine the details of the proposal, and to debate fully its merits before it is marked up in the House later this month. Rumors on Capitol Hill are that the proposal could be folded into to the forthcoming reconciliation bill, potentially drawing resources from the promised Pell entitlement."

Indeed, late Tuesday, that's exactly what Democrats in the House proposed doing, when they announced plans to move ahead soon on Obama's student loan restructuring proposal, which paves the way for paying for the community college plan.


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