New Energy for 2-Year Colleges

Community college leaders gather in Washington amid soaring rhetoric about their institutions. But will it translate into policies that benefit them?

February 12, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Community college leaders arrived here this week for their annual legislative at a time when the political chattering about their institutions appears to be at a fever pitch.

Public two-year colleges, which are scattered across nearly every Congressional district, have long enjoyed bipartisan support, if not necessarily funding,in Washington. But President Obama’s free community college proposal has pushed the discourse around public two-year colleges in a new direction, leaders say.

Whether that spotlight and attention will translate into actual victories for the institutions in Congress, though, is an open question.

The Obama administration seems to already be dialing back expectations for its free community college plan, which, as proposed, asks Congress to spend $60 billion over the next 10 years on grants to states that eliminate community college tuition for certain students.  

James Kvaal, deputy director of the White House’s domestic policy council, told community college leaders this week not to expect Congress to pass the president’s plan in the immediate future.

“This is something that we’re going to need to talk about and continue to work on over a period of time,” he said, adding that movement on the plan might come from cities, states or through “incremental steps forward in Congress.”

Democrats in Congress, too, seemed to be framing the free community college plan as a lofty goal, not something on which they’re trying to whip votes any time soon.

“The president’s proposal isn’t a finished project,” said Representative Mark Takano of California, a former community college trustee. “It’s a conversation starter.”

Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, told community college presidents that the president’s proposal was about a fundamental shift in how to approach postsecondary education.

“We are now suggesting that K through 12 is 20th-century talk,” he said. “Now it’s K through 14.”

But translating that talk into policy is a more challenging. And one solution Durbin proposed for boosting community colleges -- cracking down on federal support of for-profit colleges that compete with them -- is an example of a proposal that likely stands no chance in the Republican-controlled Congress.

In recent years, community colleges have taken hits from Congress on other student aid issues, less high-profile than the Obama proposal. Congress cut -- and then partially restored -- a program that lets students without high school diplomas, many of whom are at community colleges, receive federal aid. And community colleges have bemoaned the elimination of year-round Pell Grants.

As community college leaders fanned out across Congressional offices Wednesday, those issues were part of the talking points, as they have been in the past. But the Obama community college proposal has shifted the dynamic.

Steven M. Rose, president of Passaic County Community College in New Jersey, said he’s attended the annual community college summit for each of the past 18 years. But with the Obama community college proposal on the table this year, his conversations Wednesday with Congressional offices -- both Democratic and Republican -- were far different.

“This was a new starting point,” he said. “In the past, it was always a more technical conversation about the nuance of funding specific programs. This was a bigger conversation about the mission of community colleges, and everybody seems to get it, even if they disagree on how to pay for it.”

Bill Kelley, president of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, said he’s noticed this year a “sea change” from the 12 previous years since he’s been coming to lobby Congress on community college issues.

Still, he says he’s not confident or optimistic that a gridlocked Congress will move the ball any time soon.

“It may be more of a long slog. Maybe it doesn’t pay off in 2015, but it pays off in 2016. But we’re here to stay.” 

Kaitlin Mulhere contributed reporting. 


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