WASHINGTON – Community college advocates want the Senate to quickly refine and pass the Obama administration’s American Graduation Initiative , which has been on the chamber’s back burner amid debate about health care reform.
The initiative – a piece 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. Though the House of Representatives passed a version of the bill  last September, the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions  has done little but read it since.
These months of silence have made some community college scholars and leaders anxious. For them, the take-away message expressed at a colloquium  Wednesday at Center for American Progress on the future of community colleges was loud and clear: hurry up and pass it.
“Everybody’s been talking about the American Graduation Initiative,” said Harry J. Holzer, professor at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute. “Let’s move on. Let’s fund it.”
Holzer and Demetra S. Nightingale, principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Policy Studies, urged the Senate to fully fund the initiative. They argue, in a policy paper  they presented at the gathering, that the initiative’s proposed Community College Challenge Fund would be best spent on “Career Pathway and sectoral training efforts that generate stackable credentials and that integrate remedial efforts and bridge programs into community college curricula.”
Robert I. Lerman, economics professor at American University, also had suggestions for how to spend the Challenge Fund. He argued that these federal dollars should be used to encourage community colleges to partner with professional apprenticeship programs – in which individuals learn a skill trade in a supervised, hands-on environment. Such partnerships, he said, would benefit workers, their employers and community colleges on the way to meeting President Obama’s goal of boosting the number of two-year graduates. Most apprenticeship programs do not have a connection to an institution of higher education and, thus, do not provide their students with the opportunity to use their training to earn a college degree.
“Community college instruction provides the assurance that students have jobs linked to their education and training, thereby lessening the concern of a mismatch between skills taught and skills demanded,” Lerman wrote in the policy paper  he presented at the event. “Unlike many community college students who work part-time in jobs unrelated to their degrees, apprentices will see a close connection between their course work and their careers.”
Brian Pusser, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, offered more specific critiques of the community college initiative. In its current form, the bill requires states that seek eligibility for its funding  to have “a statewide longitudinal data system that includes data with respect to community colleges.” This language, Pusser argued, is too vague.
“This section should be strengthened – and community college data collection significantly enhanced – by specifically calling for data on student enrollments in credit and noncredit courses as well as developmental education programs,” Pusser wrote in the policy paper  he presented at the colloquium. “These data could be used to improve outcomes in community college developmental education programs and would have great utility for collaborative efforts with elementary-secondary systems designed to reduce the need for remediation at the postsecondary level.”
Some commenting on the policy suggestions presented at the event argued that passage of the American Graduation Initiative – and the introduction of some of the data collecting and sharing systems it proposes – would help streamline and replicate student success initiatives around the country.
“It’s far more complex because we don’t have a system of community colleges in this country,” said Keith Bird, chancellor emeritus of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. "We have 1,200 institutions of the public variety … and we don’t act like a system. But we could act like a system.… What I suggest is that ultimately – and I think the American Graduation Initiative will allow us to – we create a national system, not in governance but really in practice and in programs and policy.”
On the current status of the bill, Department of Education officials at the event had little comment.
Brenda Dann-Messier, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, would only say that the department was “eagerly awaiting action in the Senate.”