Community colleges are thrilled that President Obama is planning a major infusion of federal support  for their job training programs, and they are talking about how this might best be done.
The latest indication that such an announcement is imminent came Wednesday, when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who was speaking at a meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council, said it is the president’s goal to help 5 million more students through the community college system in the next 10 years than is currently projected. There are now 11.5 million students  in the country’s two-year institutions, and some experts predict that this figure will nearly double in the coming decade.
Though Emanuel kept details of the president’s financial proposal close to the vest at the event, he did hint that the plan would focus primarily on the role of community colleges in “job training and vocational education.” He further noted that all legislation related to these roles would need “rewriting” to emphasize the president’s plan.
J. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees, said he takes Emanuel’s suggestion to mean the revamping of the Workforce Investment Act, a federal program adopted under President Clinton that funds job training initiatives and whose reauthorization is on the horizon. He noted that this “would serve as a likely vehicle for these changes.”
Other community college advocates have also been weighing in on possible changes.
David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, stated that his organization has made a number of suggestions to the Obama administration and Congress about increasing federal support for two-year institutions, including making significant changes to the Workforce Investment Act.
He noted that he would like to see the act shift away from its “voucher-based system ,” which provides money to individual workers on a restricted basis for retraining, to one that allows local workforce investment boards to make contracts directly with training providers, such as community colleges. Under the current distribution of funds, for example, displaced workers sometimes cannot complete training programs with the resources given them by their voucher.
“While shifting these models would likely result in more opportunities and better support for community colleges as leading workforce training providers, additional statutory language prioritizing the use of community colleges for training would help to ensure a national-level of integration of these institutions into the workforce development system,” Baime wrote in an e-mail describing some of his organization's ideas.
Baime noted he would also like to see a revamped and reinforced version of the program for Community-Based Job Training Grants , which was started under President Bush and designed to boost the capacity of community colleges to train workers in high-demand fields.
Baime said that the first item on his wish list for community colleges was his organization's request that the government provide two-year institutions around the country $5 billion to directly address the “accumulated need for infrastructure support.”
“In the short term, federal funding to support two-year community and technical college capital will temporarily invigorate local construction businesses, which would serve or possibly save job-starved communities experiencing little or no growth,” Baime wrote. “In the long term, this funding will prepare community colleges to produce workers in the key industries of the future, such as alternative energy technologies and health care, for which our colleges prepare more than half of all new workers.”
Around Washington, at least, some community college advocates say their sector is getting more respect than in recent memory, thanks in part to recent high-profile comments like those by Emanuel the other evening.
“A lot of people want to talk about education, talk about our universities,” Emanuel said. “What has been forgotten is how important the community college system is to our economy, our ability to compete in a global economy. It is, literally, the conveyor belt to allow people to upgrade their skills when they are going from X job to Y profession.”
If community colleges are to be substantially supported by the government, Emanuel noted that they will only thrive if the government develops a more cohesive vision of the system and its role.
“In the past, our job training system in vocational ed has basically been a program per problem,” Emanuel said. “We’ve not had a comprehensive view. What I mean by program is that if you were a veteran, you had a program. If you were a displaced worker because of competition, we had a program. But, we really need to not just have a program per problem but a comprehensive view of job training, what it is supposed to accomplish, and then set up a program based on that.”