WASHINGTON – Community colleges are finally getting more than praise from the Obama Administration, with the announcement Monday of $500 million for job training grants  from the Department of Labor. The grants, which range from $24 million to $2.5 million, will go to 49 community colleges, some of which are sharing the money for projects across consortiums.
The big surprise to observers, however, was that community colleges in 10 states failed to receive a grant. Florida, a presidential battleground state with several high-profile community colleges, was shut out, as were New Mexico, Connecticut and Nevada. Colleges in other politically important states, like Michigan and Iowa, only received portions of shared grants.
Every state will receive at least a $2.5 million share of the money, officials from the Labor and Education Departments said on a phone call with reporters. The program’s directors will work with community colleges in states without a grantee to “develop a qualifying project.”
Each of the recipients has at least one industry partner, and the grants focus on training for "jobs that are open today," said Hilda L. Solis, secretary of labor. Details about the projects were sparse yesterday, but many of the grants include online and remedial learning elements, often tailored to industry-specific careers.
The news was a victory for community colleges and their advocates here, who have seen previous White House proposals that failed  to win over Congress. The new money from the Trade Act Assistance Community College Career Training Program replaces the American Graduation Initiative, which was to be a $12 billion federal investment in community colleges. The $500 million is the first appropriation of four proposed distributions, which are slated to be made on an annual basis.
Amy Laitinen worked on the American Graduation Initiative as a policy adviser for the Education Department. Now a senior policy analyst with Education Sector, Laitinen says the federal government set a high bar in awarding the job training grants.
“They’re really trying to make those dollars matter,” she says.
The federal government received more than 200 applications, totaling about $3 billion in proposed projects. The Department of Labor has been criticized for grant-making in the past, which may have influenced the competitive selection process this time around.
For-profit colleges were eligible for the money, as were four-year institutions, but only as part of a consortium where a two-year institution was the lead partner. Neither sector landed a grant, however, thanks in part to the lobbying efforts of community colleges, observers say. (Washburn University of Topeka, a four-year public college, received a grant. But the project will be housed at the Washburn Institute of Technology, a two-year institution that is part of the university.)
All grantees are required to make the results of their work open to the public, an attempt to encourage sharing of successful strategies. Making these projects OER, or “open educational resources,” could be a complication for institutions from the for-profit sector, which are generally less inclined to share proprietary information than are their nonprofit peers.
The American Association of Community Colleges was thrilled by the announcement, says David S. Baime, the association’s senior vice president of government relations and research. The money will have substantial impact in the sector, he says.
Colleges had to work hard to meet rigorous requirements for the grants, Baime says. And the fact that powerful states were left out is evidence that the federal government was serious about its scrutiny of applications.
“There was an extreme emphasis on integrity in the process,” says Baime.
AACC and others say the rest of the $1.5 billion in job training money is far from a sure thing, as it will be targeted by congressional budget cutters. The sector will push hard for those grants.
“We’re committed to fight for this in the future years,” says J. Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees.
Game-Changer in North Dakota
The $500 million is targeted for career training programs to help “economically dislocated workers” find jobs in high-demand sectors, such as advanced manufacturing, health care and transportation.
Community colleges in Hawaii received the largest grant -- $25 million for a remedial math and English program that will be delivered alongside workforce training.
Tribal two-year colleges in North Dakota and Montana will receive $19 million, which could help bring down the high unemployment rates in areas those institutions serve, says David M. Gipp, president of United Tribes Technical College, the grant's lead recipient. Unemployment can be as high as 90 percent in some tribal regions in those states.
“This will be a tremendous boost,” Gipp says.
North Dakota is in the midst of an oil boom. But tribal colleges have struggled to keep pace with the need for oil-industry-related job training, Gipp says. The grant should help change that. “We’ll be working with some of the most economically-deprived tribal citizenry,” he says.
Several of the grants went to groupings of community colleges that stretch across state borders. For example, Anne Arundel Community College is the lead institution on a grant with 10 recipients in nine states. That sort of cooperation is rare in higher education, experts say.
Cross-state efforts can be good for creating job credentials that match up well with industry needs, Laitinen says. And she says the grants that went to larger consortiums, such as the project led by Anne Arundel, include some top-flight community colleges.
“These are schools that know what they’re doing,” Laitinen says.