Community colleges

Obama proposal on tuition-free community colleges elevates sound bites over sound policy (essay)

President Obama has jumped on the bandwagon, which started in Tennessee, of making community college tuition-free. This latest proposal is his most recent effort to increase the prominence of the federal government in higher education. While giving higher education more federal  visibility may be a good thing, making community colleges tuition-free is also the latest in a series of proposals in which the administration seems to have decided that sound bites trump sound policy.

The cycle began in the administration’s early days when it declared its primary goal in higher education was to “re-establish” the U.S. as having the world’s highest attainment rate -- the proportion of working adults with a postsecondary degree of some sort. 

Never mind that the U.S. has not had the highest rate in the world for at least several decades and that achieving such a distinction now is well nigh impossible given where some other countries are. And also ignore the fact that some countries which have overtaken us, such as South Korea and Japan, have done so in large part because they are educating an increasing share of a declining number of their young people – a demographic condition we should want to avoid at all costs. 

In this effort to be Number One in higher education, the Obama administration is continuing a trend in K-12 education that began in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations in which we as a nation set totally unrealistic goals to be achieved after the incumbent administration has left office.  Not clear why we would want to expand this practice into higher education, but that’s what we are doing.

The administration also in its first year pushed for a remarkable expansion of Pell Grants as part of the economic stimulus package of 2009. It was certainly good to augment Pell Grants in the midst of a severe recession when so many students were having a tough time paying their college bills. But rather than doing it on a temporary basis by increasing awards for current recipients, the administration pushed for and the Congress agreed to a permanent legislative change that increased the number of recipients by 50 percent and doubled long term funding. 

This is the equivalent of changing tax rates in the middle of a recession rather than providing a rebate.   It certainly provided more aid for many more students – nearly one in two undergraduates now receives a Pell Grant.  But the expansion in eligibility means less aid is available for the low-income students who most need it.  And few seem worried that Pell Grant increases may have led many institutions that package aid to reduce the grants they provide from their own funds to Pell recipients, as is reflected in the fact that institutional aid increasingly goes to middle-income students.

The Obama administration’s recent effort to develop a rating system for postsecondary institutions is another example of politics triumphing over sound policy. The rhetoric goes to the noble notion of making institutions more productive and more affordable, but the metrics the administration has proposed using are unlikely to produce the desired result or may well have the unintended effect of producing bad results.

Much more troublesome, the administration’s ratings proposal would penalize students based on where they decide to enroll, as those going to colleges that don’t perform well would get less aid. This is illogical as well as counterproductive. Thankfully, there seems little chance that this proposal would be adopted, but one is left to wonder why it was suggested and pushed when it would do little to address the many real challenges facing American higher education, such as chronic inequity and unaffordability.

Which brings me to the most recent proposal by President Obama – to make community colleges tuition-free.  At this stage, we know relatively little about what is being proposed other than that it is modeled on what was done in Tennessee where state lottery funds (not a very good federal model) were used to ensure that students with good grades would not have to pay tuition to go to community college.  But since there are so few details as to how this tuition-free package would be structured, there are more questions regarding the President’s proposal than there are answers.  These include:

Who will benefit and who will pay? If the administration were to follow the Tennessee plan, current Pell Grant recipients will largely not benefit as their Pell Grant award fully covers the cost of tuition at most community colleges throughout the country. So beneficiaries would disproportionately be middle-class students who mostly can afford $3,300 in annual average tuition costs of community college, just as has been the case for the Tennessee plan. 

The administration to its credit seems to recognize this potential lack of progressivity, and its spokesmen have declared (to Inside Higher Ed) that the new benefits will be on top of what Pell Grant recipients currently receive. This could be an avenue for a big step forward in federal policy were we to recognize that Pell Grants are largely for living expenses for students whose families cannot afford to pay those expenses, but it means that the federal costs of implementing such a plan will be substantial, probably far more than the $60 billion in additional costs over 10 years now being suggested.

Also lost in the enthusiasm about making community colleges tuition-free is the reality that the biggest bill for most students are the costs of living while enrolled and the opportunity costs of leaving the job market to enroll in school on more than an occasional basis. Also lost in the hubbub is the question of how these benefits are going to be paid for. This key financing question seems largely unanswered in the administration’s explanation thus far.

What would happen to enrollments in other higher education institutions? Advocates for the Tennessee Promise talk about how it has already boosted enrollments in community colleges. There seems to be little consideration, though, of whether this might come at the expense of enrollments in other colleges and universities. The Obama administration clearly prefers for students to go to community colleges rather than for-profit trade schools, but it seems to have little concern that offering more aid for students enrolling in community colleges will have any adverse effect on enrollments in more traditional four-year institutions -- including historically black colleges that could ill afford the dropoff in enrollments.    

But federal and state officials have an obligation to recognize that enrollments in higher education are not unlimited and that providing incentives for students to enroll in one sector means that enrollments in other sectors are likely to decline. Is the next step for the federal government to propose a program of support for those institutions that cannot afford to wait for all those new community college students to transfer in two or three years to fill their now empty seats?

Why would community colleges participate? Like many other federal and state policy initiatives, the president’s proposal reflects a tendency to think only in terms of demand and to believe that price reductions will inevitably result in enrollment increases. But the economic reality is that good policy must take into account institutional behavior as well, and it is not at all clear why community colleges would change their behavior in light of the Obama proposal. Under the Obama plan the federal and state governments would replace funds that families currently spend or loans that students currently borrow for tuition. The likely result of such a policy would be more students enrolling in already overcrowded community colleges will little or no additional funds provided to community colleges to educate them.

If one truly wants to improve community college financing, a better approach would be one in which governments recognize the additional costs entailed in enrolling additional students and try to help pay for those costs. But in the absence of such a proposal, the current Obama plan seems more of the same – more requirements but no more money. As a result, it is hard to understand the enthusiasm of the community college and other national associations for the president’s plan.

Why would states participate? It’s also not immediately clear why states would participate in the Obama plan as it is aimed primarily or entirely at changing how tuition is financed. As a result, it really would not get at the majority of the community college financing iceberg – what states and localities spend in support of every student who enrolls. So the question remains: why would states choose to participate in this plan that obligates them to meet a series of new requirements AND pay for one-quarter of tuition costs in addition to still paying what they do now for operating subsidies.

In sum, an analysis of what we know of the president’s plan is part of a troubling pattern that seems to characterize our higher education policy debates these days. Political considerations trump good policy. The interests of low-income students get second billing to middle class affordability, or no billing at all. Not enough attention is paid to how things actually would work or why institutions or states would decide to participate. 

It all goes to show that, as the economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, “There is no free lunch.” One of the problems with the Obama administration’s continuing enthusiasm for higher education policy initiatives is that is doesn’t seem to recognize this basic economic reality.

Arthur M. Hauptman is a public policy consultant specializing in higher education policy and finance. This is the first in a series of articles about how federal and state higher education policies might be changed to produce greater equity, efficiency and effectiveness.

Two-year colleges in Illinois and other states lean on local government for funding

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Illinois leads list of states where community colleges already get only a single-digit percentage of their budgets from the state, and more cuts may be on the way.

Performance-based funding provokes concern among college administrators

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Public colleges may be using grade inflation or tightening admissions standards to comply with performance-based funding, survey finds.

Essay on labor market returns for bachelor's degrees from community colleges

With college costs soaring and the job market for new grads sputtering, one trend is worth watching: more and more states are authorizing community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees. Already, more than 20 states — now including California, which enrolls one out of every four of the nation's community college students — have authorized community colleges to grant these degrees.

Turf will be an issue as this trend continues, but there is a division of labor between community colleges and universities that makes sense. Community colleges can and should be encouraged to develop bachelor’s-degree programs in career and technical areas and to avoid the liberal arts degrees that are integral to the mission and education delivered by universities. In any case, turf isn't the bottom line in this coming shift. The bottom line is the bottom line: Do the technical and career-oriented degrees in which community colleges specialize pay off in the labor market?

Most community colleges have a good fix on the local labor market and can create relatively low-cost programs to fill local needs. When they follow this course with career-oriented training, there is plenty of empirical evidence that community colleges can produce graduates who earn enough to put them in the middle class and who indeed often earn more than bachelor’s graduates.

This evidence can be found in studies by College Measures, which have repeatedly demonstrated that graduates with technical associate degrees, on average, outearn graduates with bachelor’s degrees (see here or the most recent report on Tennessee). In some specialties, the gap can exceed $10,000.

Most current data on the experience of community college graduates in the labor market covers the wages of students earning associate degrees, not bachelor’s degrees. But data from Florida suggest that students earning bachelor’s degrees from community colleges also fare well.

Using data from 2012, the median wage of bachelor’s graduates from Florida’s universities one year after graduation was $33,400, far lower than the median wage ($41,000) of associate graduates of the state's community colleges.

One of the most common complaints about comparing early-career earnings is that even if graduates with associate degrees earn more than bachelor’s graduates early on, the rate at which bachelor’s graduates’ earnings increase is higher -- so that the advantage quickly disappears. There is truth to this, but five years after graduation, associate-degree holders have median earnings that are still higher than bachelor’s graduates ($47,000 versus $44,000). What’s more, the median household income in Florida is $47,309 and the median per capita income is $26,451. In short, the wages of associate-degree holders put them squarely in the middle class.

The lower wages of bachelor’s graduates result in part from the fact that universities offer a full gamut of bachelor’s degrees, including many liberal arts programs whose graduates don't earn much, especially immediately after graduation. The narrowing gap over time most likely reflects the earnings increases of the many university graduates with degrees in these low-wage fields, as they finally get to launch adult lives.

While data from Florida -- where community colleges have been granting bachelor’s degrees for years -- show associate graduates holding their own against bachelor’s graduates, the data also show that community college bachelor’s degrees are well received in the labor market.

Because Florida’s community colleges only offer degrees in a limited number of fields, it’s hard to directly compare the wages earned by graduates with bachelor’s degrees from community colleges to those of university graduates in a large number of fields. Where we can make these comparisons, the data reflect well on bachelor’s degrees earned at community colleges.

Looking at three large programs of study where comparisons are possible, data show that community college bachelor’s graduates with degrees in business administration one year after graduation had median earnings of $39,000. That’s $3,000 more than the median earnings of university graduates in the same field. Community college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in registered nursing earned $61,000, which outpaced that of university nursing graduates by $10,000. And community college bachelor’s graduates with elementary education and teaching degrees out earned university graduates by several hundred dollars: $37,500 to $37,000.

Few programs available at both community colleges and universities enroll enough students to make reporting long-term wage data possible, but elementary education and teaching is an exception. Five years after completion, community college graduates in these disciplines earned $40,200, compared to university graduates at $39,400. All these data are available here.

In short, bachelor’s graduates from community colleges are doing as well as their peers with university degrees, at least in Florida. And community college graduates usually paid far less for their education.

The United States has had a long and mostly unhappy history with career and technical education. Yet, the best programs in community colleges build on the best aspects of this training: figuring out what local labor markets need and training students at relatively low cost for those jobs. As long as they focus on this part of their mission, we should applaud the expansion of these institutions’ authority from granting certificates and associate degrees to include bachelor’s degrees.

Meanwhile, community colleges should leave philosophy, history and dance to universities committed to the liberal arts. Instead, community colleges should focus on training people for opportunities to enter the labor market with good skills that put them in the middle class. With their higher wages, these community college graduates can order their Starbucks coffees from baristas with fancy philosophy degrees.

Mark Schneider
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Mark Schneider is vice president for the American Institutes for Research and a former commissioner of education statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.

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Essay questions free community college policies

Several states have explored the possibility of so-called “free community college” programs, which would cover the cost of tuition and fees for recent high school graduates who meet certain other eligibility criteria. Tennessee was the first state to pass such a plan, making first-time, full-time students who file the FAFSA and complete eight hours of community service each semester eligible for two years of tuition and fee waivers. Legislators in Mississippi, Oregon, and Texas have proposed similar plans, although none of those have been adopted at this time.

The most recent plan for free community college comes from the city of Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would cover up to three years of tuition and fees for eligible graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. In order to be eligible, students must have a 3.0 high school grade-point average, not require remediation in math or English, and file the FAFSA. (It appears that part-time students will be eligible for the program, unlike in the state proposals.) The district estimates that about 3,000 students would qualify for the program out of the roughly 20,000 students who graduate each year.

Who Benefits?

All of these programs operate as last-dollar scholarships, meaning that the city or state makes their contribution — if any — to the student after federal grant aid (primarily the Pell Grant) has already been applied. In Chicago, tuition and fees for a full-time student are approximately $2,536, less than half of the maximum Pell Grant. District officials estimate that 85 percent of students’ tuition and fees will be covered by Pell Grants — meaning that the city’s contribution will be zero in most cases. This contributes to an estimated cost of about $2 million in the first year.

Looking more broadly, these “free college” programs will give very little additional money to students with the greatest financial need. In every state except New Hampshire and South Dakota, the average tuition and fees at community colleges was lower than the maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 in the 2013-14 academic year. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, show that 38 percent of community college students had their tuition and fees entirely covered by grant aid. An additional 33 percent of students paid less than $1,000 out of pocket for tuition and fees. Eighty-five percent of Pell recipients at community colleges had sufficient grant aid to cover tuition and fees, meaning they would get no additional money from a “free college” program.

Bryce McKibben of the Association of Community College Trustees has written about how Tennessee’s program will mainly benefit students from middle-income and higher-income families. NPSAS data for community college students show that relatively few low-income students nationwide will benefit from these programs, as most of them already have tuition and fees paid for by other sources.

Tuition and Fees Not Covered by Grant Aid at Community Colleges, by Income

Income quartile

























Source: 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study

Note: Sample includes dependent students attending community colleges.

Costs Are More Than Tuition and Fees

At community colleges, tuition and fees are a small portion of the total cost of attendance. Students also have to pay for books and other supplies, a place to live, and everyday expenses necessary to live while also being a student. While some argue that living costs shouldn’t be subsidized by financial aid because they are also necessary to live, being able to cover these costs is critical to being successful in college. The “free college” programs do not cover any of the other expenses, meaning that students must turn to loans or self-support in order to finance their education.

Only 2 percent of community college students receiving Pell Grants in the NPSAS have their full cost of attendance met by grant aid. Four in 10 Pell recipients have to cover less than $5,000 in costs, while an additional 37 percent have to cover between $5,000 and $10,000. The median student with a zero expected family contribution has to come up with just over $5,000 to cover estimated living costs — something that the Chicago program and other similar programs do nothing to alleviate.

Defining “College Ready”

Unlike some other last-dollar scholarship programs, Chicago’s program has a substantial merit component. The requirements of a 3.0 high school grade point average and testing into college-level math and English leave out the vast majority of community college students. Ninety-four percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates required remediation in math in 2009, suggesting that very few students are able to qualify for the city’s program. About 40 percent of community college students in the NPSAS had taken at least one remedial course, with slightly higher rates for Pell recipients. This means that other states or cities considering merit components are likely to reduce the potential pool of recipients — and reduce their costs.  

Making grant receipt contingent on placement test scores could potentially have negative effects on students who end up in remediation. Research by Jennie Brand, Fabian Pfeffer, and Sara Goldrick-Rab using Chicago Public Schools data has found that attending community colleges results in a higher bachelor’s-degree completion rate for disadvantaged students, many of whom are unlikely to enroll in college without the option of a community college. Students who expect to get a scholarship under the Chicago program but are then deemed ineligible due to their test score may be more likely to drop out of college due to the disappointment of not getting the award. It is important to note this effect could even exist for students who would get no additional money under the Chicago program — as long as the perception is that the program is giving them money that is actually being provided by the Pell Grant.

How to Improve “Free College” Programs

“Free college” programs do have some positive attributes, in spite of the limitations noted above. Some students from middle-income families will get additional financial aid as a result of the program. But the concept of “free college” could even benefit Pell recipients who are unlikely to see any additional financial aid under the program. Research has shown that making students aware of their financial aid eligibility results in increased college attendance rates, and similar effects could result due to the programs' publicity. For those reasons, it is important that the Chicago and Tennessee programs be rigorously evaluated to see who benefits, and for what groups of students the program passes a cost-effectiveness test.

These programs should also provide some additional financial aid to students whose Pell Grants cover tuition and fees in order to cover living costs. Even a $500 award at the beginning of the semester would help low-income students manage upfront costs like books and rent payments, and could be paid for by slightly reducing awards for students who are not Pell-eligible. The program would still give larger benefits to financially squeezed middle-income families, but students with the greatest financial need would also see some additional money.

It is also important to consider extending the programs to returning adult students, who typically do not qualify for these programs. The median age of community college students is approximately 23, and a program that provides assistance to these students (most of whom have exceptional financial need) could prove to be very beneficial. Finally, it is important to publicize these programs (and their conditions) widely so students and their families know that community college can be an affordable, high-quality educational option.

Robert Kelchen (@rkelchen) is an assistant professor in the department of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University and blogs at Kelchen on Education. All opinions are his own.

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Essay: Finding great teaching at an expensive university and a community college

As a student at a private university I had a sneaking suspicion that the magic between the pages of our great books had nothing to do with the cost of tuition, but had much to do with the generous heart of the instructor -- no matter the setting. I think I was right.

I spent the fall of 2013 enrolled at a community college in Texas trying to discover what you really get when you pay the most in the world of higher education -- and what you get when you pay the least.

By day, I was a junior English major at Southern Methodist University, one of the nation’s most expensive private universities. By night, I was a commuter student in an American literature class at Richland College, a nearby community college. An English class at my university cost over $5,100, while at Richland it was only $153. While at SMU, after a few false starts, the liberal arts had come alive through accessible professors and vibrant class discussions, something near the fantasy of "Dead Poets Society" but with textbooks too expensive to be able to justify tearing out any pages. As the semesters passed, I began to wonder about the extent to which this experience was tied to the amount I paid for it -- what do the liberal arts look like on a budget? What does a literature class feel like at our most accessible institutions? I went to find out.


The most important thing I had done at SMU was to go to my English 2312 professor’s office on a Friday afternoon and tell the truth. The truth was not that I was unprepared for college, but that I simply didn’t like college. It’s a different world up there, my mother had warned. I must have misplaced the map. And I didn’t know if I wanted to stay at SMU. I wondered how I would I ever begin to come to terms with this whole college thing -- what it was for and how it could ever be worth the cost. These are hard questions to ask during the best years of your life, which is what they called college in the movies I had watched. But I couldn’t recall a scene where the freshman pulled doubts like rabbits from a hat and turned them into answers for his soul.

The teacher was there, door open and waiting, just as the syllabus had promised under the heading of “Office Hours.” My purpose was to discuss my second paper -- a postmortem. Tim Cassedy, a young assistant professor recently arrived from New York, observed that it seemed my high school had prepared me well for college writing -- an innocuous compliment to most students. But for me it was an invitation. The proper response is to say "thank you" and indicate how happy you are to be at college now instead of that dreadfully confining high school that taught you how to form simple paragraphs. I hesitated for a second, half-inclined just to agree, give the correct answer, and continue with the conversation. But another part of me, the honest part, wanted badly to tell the truth.

I began to unpack my situation, my confusion, my questions, my longing for something more from my college experience than just velvet green lawns and affluent classmates. And Professor Cassedy listened. He didn’t dismiss or diagnose. He didn’t tell me that everything would be O.K. I was surprised to find that he seemed just as interested as I was in finding the answers to my questions and wishful thinkings. He understood. I got better. And I became an English major.

That moment saved college for me. If I had decided not to tell the truth that afternoon, I could have continued to accrue credits and eventually a degree, but I wouldn’t have been to college. Something significant would have been missed and valuable time wasted. I went back to his office another time and again I was reassured and challenged. I went back again and again and the door was always open. All of my big and important realizations were tested there; made sharper through discussion, questioning and that ancient practice most simply known as “teaching.”


Three semesters later I was at Richland, looking again for a way to understand college. My search led me to a green armchair. You nearly trip over it when you walk into Crockett Hall 292, but its importance there has more to do with symbolism than functionality. Near the halfway point of the semester, I decided to go to the office of my English 2326 professor, Mary Northcut, and try to tell her the truth about why I was taking her class and the answers I was seeking. I say “try to” because I didn’t know whether it was even possible to experience this part of the professor-student relationship in the way I had at SMU. There were office hours listed on the syllabus, but how could my professor, who was teaching six classes that semester, possibly have the time or energy to engage meaningfully with her students one-on-one? I was mistaken in questioning her availability and commitment to her students, and along the way I found that I was wrong about many other things as well. Important, life-changing conversations are happening at community colleges too, and I was lucky to have found myself in the middle of one that afternoon.

Professor Northcut has been teaching at Richland College for nearly 40 years. After completing a doctorate at Texas Christian University, she immediately devoted herself to teaching outside the spotlight but inside a social mission. She first taught at Bishop College, a historically black college that later closed its doors in 1988, and then at El Centro College before transferring across the Dallas County Community College District to Richland. At some point during her decades-long stay she must have acquired this green padded chair, the arm of which served as my seat during our hourlong talk. She was a fascinating conversation partner, possessing the tendency toward eccentricity that marks college professors everywhere. Between exchanges on the nature and purpose of higher education we discussed her love for horses, East Asian cinema and collecting Ancient Grecian coins. (In fact, it seemed I had walked into her office at a crucial moment in an eBay bidding war over a coin bearing the image of Phillip II of Macedon.)

But what deeply moved me, largely because I had foolishly believed that it couldn’t possibly be true, was this important truth: Professor Northcut wants to be at Richland and she is there on purpose. She is convinced that community colleges serve a vital purpose in aiding the best and brightest students who lack the resources to attend four-year schools right out of high school, or perhaps got sidetracked along the way. By her description, Richland exists explicitly to help those students find their way to universities and brighter futures. She is not at Richland because she never found a better job, or to collect a few extra paychecks before retirement. And she certainly does not see her students as the caricatures they often become in our higher-education debates -- representatives of broken systems; too unprepared to make it at a “real college.”

She knows them to be just as capable of academic success as any other students. And she has an astounding track record of helping her students take the next step. Professor Northcut is full of stories of her students, many of whom she describes as being like her own children, going on to schools like TCU, SMU and even Columbia University. To her, Richland College is a serious place with serious goals, and despite decades of changes and challenges, she is no less committed to its mission now than she was as a newly minted Ph.D. joining the ranks of socially conscious community college faculties in the 1970s. She told me she plans to keep teaching full-time for the foreseeable future and to retire later, reducing her teaching load to only “one or two classes” per semester. Two classes per semester is the ordinary teaching load for professors at SMU and most other elite colleges.

As I sat listening to all this on the arm of the green chair, worn threadbare by the pants of many students before me, I was overwhelmed with an awareness that the ancient art of teaching had found a home in this small office also. And the stakes in this office were much higher, the problems more pressing and the margin for error more perilously thin than perhaps in most of the offices at SMU. Futures were forged here not from an abundance of advantages but out of a struggle for a fighting chance. I don’t consider it an exaggeration to say that lives were saved in that office, in addition to the moments of intellectual growth we expect from any college experience. And most important for me, I left with that same feeling I had found my freshman year in Professor Cassedy’s office -- that the world is full of complexity and college is here to help you recognize and make sense of it. The best professors show you how. The best professors are everywhere.


I can no longer assume that office hours and compelling professors are the exclusive property of private universities. But of course, I cannot guarantee that they exist at every single college either. I can only claim this: I am a product of office hours and great teachers and truth-telling, and I would not pay for a class, be the cost $150 or $5,000, that doesn’t include the chance to find an open door and welcoming ear whenever the questions become too large to face alone. This is the difference between a degree and an education.

Preston Hutcherson
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Preston Hutcherson is an undergraduate English major at Southern Methodist University.

Faculty members at Alamo Colleges say they're not consulted on curricular decisions

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Less than a year after Alamo Colleges professors objected to their chancellor's plan to require a course in part on the '7 Habits,' they cite new concerns about shared governance, including a move to abolish program-based associate degrees.

College-level statistics trumps remedial algebra in CUNY study

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Students fare better by skipping remediation and instead taking statistics with an additional workshop, new CUNY study finds, fueling state remedial reforms.

Moving from community college to four-year university is most likely to yield succeful credit transfer, study finds

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Moving along the community college to four-year university pipeline is the most likely to lead to successful credit transfers in higher education, a new federal study finds.

New workforce fund in Louisiana ties money to jobs and private donations

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Louisiana's two-year colleges get the backing of business -- and more state funding -- thanks to workforce focus and program cuts.


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