Obama Plan Would Aid 2-Year Colleges

President's jobs proposal would provide $5 billion to modernize facilities at community and tribal colleges.
September 9, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The $450 billion plan that President Obama unveiled Thursday night to try to stimulate job growth and the economy would provide $5 billion in funds to build and renovate facilities and other infrastructure at community colleges and tribal colleges.

Details about the proposal were sparse as of last night; the president's combative speech to a joint session of Congress did not even mention the funds, but a White House fact sheet said that the money for the institutions would bolster "their infrastructure in this time of need while ensuring their ability to serve future generations of students and communities."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan also mentioned the money in a blog post, saying that it and another $25 billion in facilities funds for public schools would "put hundreds of thousands of construction workers, engineers, boiler repairmen, and electrical workers back to work rebuilding and modernizing our aging public schools and community colleges." An Education Department spokeswoman confirmed Thursday evening that the agency would administer the infrastructure program.

The facilities plan for community colleges was resonant of past Obama administration proposals that bit the dust.

The original Senate and House versions of the economic stimulus legislation that the president pushed (and a Democratic-led Congress passed) in 2009 contained between $3.5 billion (in the Senate measure) and $6 billion (in the House bill) to modernize higher education facilities. But the infrastructure aid for colleges was dropped from the final measure, though the stimulus legislation provided tens of billions in other funds that aided colleges and universities directly or indirectly and helped many of them weather the worst of the economic downturn.

Similarly, infrastructure funds for community colleges were among the casualties of the horse trading that shed tens of billions of dollars for higher education from 2010's Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which in the end focused its resources on bolstering Pell Grants.

The American Graduation Initiative, a $12 billion proposal that President Obama unveiled in July 2009 to strengthen the country's community colleges, called for the creation of a $2.5 billion fund in the Education Department "to catalyze $10 billion in community college facility investments that will expand the colleges’ ability to meet employer and student needs." The plan envisioned the funds being used to pay the interest on bonds or other debt, seed capital campaigns, or create state revolving loan funds, but the money did not materialize.

It is not unreasonable to think that the proposal the president included (by all accounts at the last minute) in his speech Thursday night might work similarly. But with so little information to work with, community college officials were reluctant to do anything but express gratitude for the potential help.

"Lost in the focus on serving unprecedented numbers of students has been the pressing need for facilities modernization on our campuses," said David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. "So we welcome this support."

Colleges could be an indirect beneficiary of one other aspect of the president's jobs plan, most of which focused on tax cuts for employers and the middle class, extension of unemployment benefits, and funds for transportation.

The plan, if enacted, would also provide $35 billion (presumably to states) to help them avoid layoffs of teachers, firemen and other public servants. While the money could not be used to save the jobs of college teachers, the additional federal funds flowing into state and local coffers could slightly relieve pressure on state budgets that many analysts expect to force cuts in spending on public higher education.

But that, like the potential infrastructure funds for community colleges, would only happen in the event that Congress and President Obama actually come to agreement on his jobs plan, which given the hyper-partisan climate in Washington these days has to seem like a long shot right now.

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