Hope Amid Disappointment

March 16, 2010

After a year of high hopes, the apparent shedding of the American Graduation Initiative from combined health care/student aid legislation has left many community college officials deeply disappointed.

But, whether because they are accustomed to being disappointed by Washington politicians, or because they remain hopeful that the initiative and its financial windfall may re-emerge down the road, many community college leaders looked at the bright side in interviews on Monday. Some said their sector had benefited immensely from having been a focus of the Obama administration's education and jobs agenda for so long, and are optimistic about federal support for their institutions in the future.

The AGI, originally a part of the larger Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, would invest more than $12 billion in the nation’s community colleges during the next 10 years, and calls for 5 million more two-year graduates by 2020. But as Democratic lawmakers continued to work Monday to craft a combined health care and student aid measure that would meet budget targets and reduce the deficit enough to meet a Congressional mandate, the initiative was among the many priorities that the administration and its Congressional allies appeared to sacrifice.

“Even though we understand the mechanics involved don’t necessarily reflect a lessening of support or appreciation of community colleges, it’s still disappointing,” said Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, who like many of his peers avoided any hint of anger or serious frustration. “It did take the air out of our sails,” added John J. Sbrega, president of Bristol Community College, in Massachusetts.

Ralls and others seemed inclined to focus on the positives, like the national attention the initiative brought to community colleges. “I’m someone who believes that community colleges have been an unrecognized player in the U.S. education fabric, and I think recognition, even without resources, has been important for us,” he said.

Other presidents said they had been using the AGI and President Obama’s goal as leveraging tools with state and local politicians to argue the importance of their institutions in a financial recovery.

“When President Obama announced the AGI, that was perhaps the first time in decades that community colleges had been put on what I would describe as the national agenda,” said Wright Lassiter Jr., president of the Dallas County Community College District, in Texas. “For him to use the phrase ‘community college’ in his State of the Union address was significant. We’ve been using the thrust of AGI as one of the focal points in expressing our views to the Texas legislature and to other stakeholders as to how we can help respond to economic and work force development needs. The AGI has done a lot to raise awareness.”

Community college lobbying during the AGI debate has even spurred some local initiatives that remain, despite the potential loss of federal funding.

Sbrega noted that the president's "wonderful" focus on two-year institutions "mirrors what [Massachusetts] Gov. Deval Patrick is doing. He’s been emphasizing the importance of community colleges and has been arguing for them to be free for all who seek access.”

Also, in Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter recently set the goal of doubling the number of percentage of city residents who attend and complete college in the next 10 years. Currently, only 21 percent of Philadelphians hold baccalaureate degrees.

“Local officials have done a good job of articulating some of President Obama’s goals for education,” said Stephen M. Curtis, president of Community College of Philadelphia. “Still, I do hope Congress returns to this at some point. I think we have to make education, education reform and educational attainment every bit as important as health care or whatever other priorities we think are essential to provide.”

Some two-year-college officials say that preparing themselves to meet the high standards that would have been in place when they applied for grants under the graduation initiative had helped improve their methods of assessing themselves.

“We recognize that the goals of the AGI are our goals as well: increasing college completion rates, closing achievement gaps, melding education and workforce development efforts in way that benefit people today and tomorrow,” Randy Schmailzl, president of Metropolitan Community College, in Nebraska, said via e-mail. “In that respect, the AGI and its outcome benchmarks have served as a catalyst for continuous improvements at MCC that will continue with or without this new funding resource. That said, we are living in a time of dwindling resources. If Congress fails to ensure some funding for these types of improvements, along with the facilities support that is so critical to their success, state and local resources may not be able to make up the difference.”

Lassiter echoed that sentiment, noting that AGI’s benchmarks will live on in Dallas.

“It’ll cause us to take a closer look at how well we’re doing our jobs,” Lassiter said. “For me, this is very, very important, because if there was to be funding because of AGI, it would be based upon if we were being good stewards of that money. We’re still working hard on all measures of student success and how we’re doing in terms of retention and transfer and emerging workforce needs.”

Even if AGI were to pass, funding would not be a guarantee, as its grants were to be selected via a competitive process. Still, many community colleges had planned to seek grants to help with essential facilities projects.

“We were hopeful for construction funds,” said Vicki P. Hawsey, president of Wallace State Community College, in Alabama. “We have a health sciences and life sciences building that we were nearing the stage to breaking ground on, but this’ll slow down attainment of that goal. We’re already admitting less than half the nursing students we could because we’re already at capacity in our existing building. To move forward with construction, like all things in higher education, money will likely come through assessing students a fee to pay for part of the cost.”

Other leaders say they will look to local businesses and other community members to help fund the projects they had hoped to receive AGI funds to start or complete.

“We just announced the closure of four of our campus centers,” said Marsi Liddell, president of Aims Community College, in Colorado. “Any space we leased will be gone.… Whether it comes from the corporate world or what have you, you’re going to see more dollars coming from that sphere here at Aims. Major research universities have endowments and alumni, but community colleges are going to have to look more to the community.”

Despite the disappointment at the seeming loss of AGI, at least one community college president noted that the legislative priority towering over all other higher education priorities -- retaining Pell Grant increases for low-income students -- was enormously important to two-year institutions.

“I will say something which may not go over well with my colleagues,” Sbrega said. “But, to take from the medical field, my first take on this is to 'do no harm' to Pell Grants. It’s important that that is still there. Community colleges are helped by those funds, too.”

Sbrega and other community college leaders expressed frustration that AGI may become the victim of a highly partisan fight over the details of the student bill and health care reform. Still, many said they are optimistic about future federal support for their institutions.

“This is a difficult political environment we find ourselves in,” said Lassiter. “It’s unfortunate AGI got stuck with something else. Though it’s clear to me nothing is going to happen for AGI for at least a year or so, we won’t stop our efforts advocating for it.”

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