WASHINGTON – Community college advocates are encouraging their constituents to put aside their minor disagreements about the structure of the American Graduation Initiative for the moment and lobby collectively for its quick passage, now that it may be considered alongside health-care reform  via the contentious budget reconciliation process.
While community college officials have strongly backed the legislation from the beginning, they also have had various ideas for improving it and have spent time – until now – arguing for various changes both publicly and in their behind-the-scenes communications with Congressional members and staff.
Wednesday, at the opening session of the annual legislative summit  sponsored by the Association of Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community Colleges, the major point of discussion was the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), which has been on the legislative back burner while Congress has been debating health care reform.
The most significant part of the bill for many in the two-year sector is the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), $12 billion in federal grant funding for which community colleges can compete. Even though the bill would also pour tens of billions of dollars into Pell Grants and other programs, higher education leaders have generally been tentative in their support for the legislation because they have yet to see how various accountability provisions might turn out in the final version of the measure.
Some worry that if there is further delay in passing the larger student aid bill, the community college funding portion of it may be in danger. (Adding to the uncertainty about the bill, six Democratic senators on Wednesday sent a letter  to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada expressing concern that the student loan legislation would kill jobs, and urging him to consider "alternatives" to the measure. The six senators are Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb of Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Tom Carper of Delaware, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.)
“As you know, 2009 was a landmark year for federal support of community colleges,” said Jean Goodnow, president of Delta College, in Michigan, and a moderator of one of the day’s discussions. “It is up to us to now maintain the momentum and ensure that community colleges speak with one voice to deliver the clearest possible message about our priorities.”
Sensing the urgency of the moment on Capitol Hill, many community college advocates believe that budget reconciliation is the most likely route for passage of the AGI this year. They argue that time is of the essence for those community college trustees and presidents visiting town for the summit to lobby their representatives and senators without focusing on quibbles over the bill.
“I know there’s a lot of discussion for many of you [about] what’s in the program,” said Jee Hang Lee, ACCT director of public policy. “‘What’s in the final program for SAFRA? What’s in the final program for AGI? What is it going to look like?’ What we’ve heard is that, for the most part, the House and Senate staffs and the White House have something in place. I don’t know what it looks like. I don’t know many people who do know what it looks like. But they have a broad agreement on the structure of these programs, so that’s nice to know that they have because that means it’ll likely get funded.”
Still, he advised visiting trustees and presidents to be direct in their support for the bill and wait until later to work out potential kinks in its specific provisions.
“My point is that you just need to press hard to get this money and get it passed, and we can work out some of the details, I guess, later, I guess through the negotiated rule-making period,” Lee said.
Some in the audience at the summit, however, expressed frustration and concern that some of their lawmakers would oppose the legislation no matter what they say.
“I represent the entire delegation from Wyoming, and we’re in a situation where all of our representatives and senators are Republican,” said one attendee, who did not identify herself, before the room. “Does anybody have a clue to help me face them? We can put forth what we’re talking about here … but if you just follow their voting record, it’s no, no, no, no, no.”
Jim Hermes, AACC director of government relations, advised the audience that, even though it has been a rough time for Congress to work together across party lines, those who are likely to oppose the bill as written still need to hear about its relevance to community colleges.
“Congress need to continue to hear about the difficulties you’re having with increasing enrollments, decreasing state budgets and how it’s crippling your ability to serve the people that are trying to get into your programs,” Hermes said. “We don’t want to send you out there with the wrong impression, though. SAFRA is a party line issue. … But, they still need to hear how important it is to your institutions and to members of your community."