Show Us the Money

September 12, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Community colleges get lots of love from politicians these days. But although members of Congress like to be seen at community college graduations, the sector’s leaders will need to lobby hard for the latest White House-proposed funding boost to become a reality.

The Obama administration last week included $5 billion for “facilities modernization needs” at community and tribal colleges as part of a $447 billion job growth plan, which also includes $25 billion in K-12 facilities funding. While the president promised to cover the plan’s cost with budget cuts, new federal spending proposals face fierce resistance from Congressional Republicans and a good chunk of the general public.

“Common sense tells us that putting the federal government in the business of school construction will only lead to higher costs and more regulations,” Representative John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in a written statement.

Other potential windfalls for community colleges from the Obama administration, like the $12 billion American Graduation Initiative and some funds that didn't survive early drafts of the 2009 stimulus legislation, have either withered or died completely. But community college officials say they will mount an aggressive push this time around, perhaps more so than with past White House initiatives.

“There’s going to be real grassroots support to get this enacted,” says David S. Baime, senior vice president of government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges. He says community college presidents know that “in order to secure resources, you have to have a very loud voice.”

With improved facilities, Baime says community colleges could serve more students, which would help President Obama make progress on his ambitious college completion goals.

Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College, a two-year college in Florida, says advocates for community colleges may not have been as mobilized as they could have been in building support for previous White House spending proposals. Specifics of those plans were sometimes unclear, he says, complicating lobbying efforts. And community college leaders have been busy dealing with tight budgets and enrollment crunches.

However, Shugart and others say community colleges fought hard to prevent cuts to Pell Grants, and may apply lessons from that successful effort to the quest for facilities money. A particularly effective strategy is to enlist huge numbers of voters who attend community colleges to put pressure on lawmakers in their home districts.

“All politics is still local,” Shugart says. “My most effective game is to meet directly, eyeball to eyeball, with our representatives.”

Many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, will resist new spending for community college facilities. Some may echo the sentiments of Mark Schneider, vice president for new education initiatives at the American Institutes for Research, who says the money could be better spent elsewhere in higher education.

“What we really need to invest in is some new models,” like promising distance education programs or competency-based degrees, says Schneider, a visiting scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and former commissioner of the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Spending $5 billion on brick-and-mortar campuses is just a Band-Aid, he says. “There are more fundamental things that we need to do with community colleges.”

State Purse Strings

More details about the proposal emerged on Friday. The federal government would distribute the money to states, based on the number of students who attend community college in each state, said Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development at the Department of Education, in a phone call with reporters.

The department released a fact sheet describing the plan’s impact on each state, which AACC posted on its website. California, for example, would receive $1.1 billion in new facilities funding for community colleges in the next fiscal year, while Rhode Island would receive $12.7 million.

Martin said the money for both community colleges and K-12 systems is to be used for repairing and upgrading facilities, rather than for new construction projects.

“It’s designed for smaller projects,” she said, “that would address immediate needs.”

States would decide how to distribute the funds, Martin said, based on which colleges need it most. The White House is also pushing for the proposed money to be used for projects that are environmentally friendly and focused on energy efficiency.

How states chose to allocate the money would obviously be of great interest to community colleges, Baime says, as statehouses would control the purse strings.

“States would have broad latitude to choose how to distribute the funds,” he says.

The Obama administration intends to submit the jobs proposal to Congress this week, and President Obama has been on the road promoting the plan. His first stop was a Friday visit to the University of Richmond.

Aging Campuses

Community and tribal college officials say their physical plants are in dire need of a cash infusion. Many have faced budget cuts in the recession’s wake while also coping with large enrollment gains. Deferred maintenance at community colleges nationwide is an estimated $100 billion, according to the White House.

The California Community Colleges System alone has $30 billion in facilities needs, split evenly between modernization of existing structures and overdue new buildings, says Dan Troy, the system’s vice chancellor of college finance and facilities planning. He says that 47 percent of its facilities are at least 40 years old, and that the state hasn’t passed a general obligation bond for capital projects since 2006.

“The well is just about dry,” Troy says.

Community college officials say green building upgrades could also be cost-savers. Shugart says relatively cheap energy-efficiency improvements could save up to $3 million a year at Valencia. More importantly, both Shugart and Troy say their institutions could serve more students with improved facilities.

Tribal colleges face an extra layer of challenges with facilities upkeep. Their funding comes primarily from the federal government and student tuition, and the colleges lack support from state capital project funds. The relatively young tribal colleges often inherited used structures for their campuses, like old school buildings or Quonset huts, many of which now require repairs or improvements.

For example, an information technology building at Salish Kootenai College, a tribal institution located in Montana, developed a serious flooding problem this spring, says Stacey Sherwin, director of institutional effectiveness at the college.

Snowfall on campus was heavy this winter, Sherwin says, and a new spring popped up under the building and began gushing out 10,000 gallons per hour, flooding the structure.

“We have no budget for that repair,” says Sherwin. “So we’re having to take that money from student services and other areas that support students.”

Yet the odds still appear slim for the $5 billion from the federal government, at least according to an economics class at Wake Technical Community College.

The class tuned in to the president’s speech last week, with a camera crew from a local NBC affiliate on hand. Their instructor, Johnny Shull, wanted students to analyze the $447 billion jobs proposal and its potential. Although Shull says the students appreciated the president's interest in education funding and the job market, they weren’t optimistic about the plan's chances in Congress -- 90 percent doubted it will pass.

“I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a bunch of controversial things they will find in there and that they won’t agree on,” said student Brandon Dockins, according to the news account.

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