Mutual Back Scratching

In conference call with community college presidents, Obama administration officials offer support and praise -- and subtly seek backing for plan on restructuring financial aid programs.
October 5, 2009

Part pep rally, part support group -- and part lobbying effort.

All of those elements were present Friday as a team of Obama administration officials -- including the White House's special guest star for any and all community college events, Jill Biden -- held a conference call with about 80 two-year college leaders, which they characterized as a listening session. And it undoubtedly served that purpose, with presidents of community colleges praising the administration for the significant attention it is paying to the sector but also pointing out, in no uncertain terms, that the funds the increased federal government has directed to them have not nearly sufficed in protecting them from the harm inflicted by state budget cuts.

But the session and the stroking also had a subtle but plainly evident ulterior motive: letting an important constituency know that the administration very much needs its help as the White House pushes Congress to pass legislation to carry out a massive restructuring of the student aid programs that would, not coincidentally, pour $10 billion into community colleges.

At several points in the call, administration officials let the two-year college presidents know that priorities they favor are dependent on Congress passing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (and the community college focused American Graduation Initiative that is part of it) this fall. In response to a question from Jerry Weber, president of the College of Lake County, about whether the increased number of students seeking Pell Grants will continue to have their needs met, for instance, Robert Shireman, deputy under secretary of education, responded that "the student loan reforms are critical to our having the funds to do that."

And while a department spokesman, Massie Ritsch, began the call by telling the presidents that its purpose was to "hear from you how you are coping with the needs of your students at this time," he concluded it by saying that "the department is committed to working with you," but that the administration "will need your voices" in the months ahead.

The White House is likely to have them, to judge by the words of praise that flowed from the two-year college presidents on the call, who were solicited by the American Association of Community Colleges. After Biden, the second lady and a longtime community college instructor, and Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter took turns commending the institutions' work and explaining the administration's various initiatives to bolster it, the presidents had their turn to comment and question.

Many offered thanks. "Our colleges are no longer in the witness protection program" because of the administration's strong support for -- and shining of the spotlight on -- community colleges, said Ed Coulter, president of Arkansas State University-Mountain Home, a two-year institution that reported an enrollment increase of 24 percent this fall, he said.

"Thank you for drawing the attention of the world" to our institutions, Christa Adams, president of Ohio's Owens Community College, said to Kanter, Biden and their colleagues in the administration.

But mixed in with the commendations were plenty of expressions of concern about the institutions' ability to continue to fulfill their missions, given the challenging mix of exploding enrollments and shrinking state budgets.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the first two calls came from colleges in California, where the situation is perhaps direst. The funds the federal government has sent colleges' way as part of last winter's economic stimulus package has helped, said Constance M. Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, but it has paled in comparison to what the district has lost. "I wanted to let you know how much we appreciate [the recovery act] -- the seven grants we've received have been putting people to work in allied health" fields, she said. But because of the state cuts, "we've been cutting $30 million while we are receiving $3 million in funds from the administration."

"There's a paradox between the federal effort to provide support and the state effort which is in the other direction," she said. "Is there anything the administration can do to help stabilize states like California, or at least stabilize funding for community colleges, so our efforts are not undermined by state reductions?"

The administration has tried, said Shireman, the deputy under secretary, through the $54 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund that was part of the recovery act, although the Education Department's inspector general noted in an alert late last week that numerous states appeared to be evading the law's intention by shifting state funds from education to other purposes and using the federal funds to replace it.

"We do know that California is having a particularly difficult budget situation," Shireman added. "We'd hoped this money would help reduce the levels of cuts, to at least provide a little bit of time for California to undertake the efforts it needs to get its overall fiscal health under control." (There have been glimmers of positive news amid the state's otherwise dismal situation.)

Katherine M. Johnson, president of Pasco-Hernando Community College, in Florida, said that her institution was dealing with its 18 percent increase in enrollments this fall in part by expanding its online offerings. She asked how quickly the institution and others might be able to take advantage of the "online skills laboratory" the administration plans to create, providing $500 million to spur the development of free, high quality online courses that institutions would share.

Hal Plotkin, a former trustee at Foothill-De Anza Community College District who is now a senior policy adviser to Kanter, said the administration saw the course development program as one way around the conflict of decreased funding and increased demand that so many community colleges are facing. "Our vision for this ... is that working with consortia of high quality producers, we can make these courses available to community colleges so that we can equalize access to high quality education regardless of capacity" limitations. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an inaccuracy.)

But when will the money flow? one other president asked, saying he'd heard "rumors" that funds for President Obama's American Graduation Initiative wouldn't be available until November 2011.

That will depend on when Congress acts on the legislation, Shireman said -- another hint, if the presidents hadn't gotten the message already, that they might want to consider telephoning their Congressional representatives as soon as the department's call ended.


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