Praise But No Cash

The White House summit offered community colleges a day in the spotlight, writes Wick Sloane. The rest is up to the institutions themselves.


October 6, 2010

I’ll start with the good.

Hearing the words “community college” spoken in the White House by the President of the United States? And spoken again by the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers? In my lifetime? Until yesterday, I would not even have dreamed. Or that I’d be standing beneath the chandeliers in the East Room, seeing and hearing this myself.

“These colleges are the unsung heroes of the American education system,” President Obama told the audience of 120 community college leaders, three Cabinet secretaries, one member of Congress, and eight other administration senior officials in the noon opening session.

With a red tag on a chrome neck chain that I had to return, from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. yesterday, I was a temp in the White House press corps. I’ll get this out of the way now: for an obscure columnist, going to the White House is a blast. As I promised a friend, I’d write “I.F. Stone” in my notebook (see quote here), and not fall for the glamor.

Now back to my job here as a columnist. This column is a tough one. The day had good and not-so-good. The administration has taken massive action for higher education, including more than doubling funding from $16 to $34 billion for Pell Grants, the major aid for students like those at community colleges.

Attention is not funding, but I admit that the White House today sent word of what community colleges can do throughout the land. Jill Biden, professor at Northern Virginia Community College and wife of the vice president, said as she has before that community colleges are “the best-kept secret” in the United States. Introducing President Obama, Dr. Biden said, “With the President of the United States shining the light on community colleges, I think that secret is out.” I agree. Do community colleges, who know most about their problems, have an agenda President Obama and Secretary Duncan can back?

Day in the Sun
For more on the summit,
see our news coverage.

At the summit, no one I heard asked for the money back. That’s the $12 billion for community colleges that vaporized out of budget legislation this year, shortchanging the nation’s 1,200 community colleges and six million students, half the nation’s undergraduates.

Walter Bumphus, president-elect of the American Association of Community Colleges, was at the summit. I asked him how much funding he planned to ask for in his presidency, which begins in January. Premature for him to reply, he told me. What of the cloud circling the Summit, people saying that a White House meeting was a sop to community colleges, for cutting the AGI?

“I prefer to see the glass as half-full and focus on this emphasis on community colleges,” Bumphus said. “I appreciate the spotlight that the White House is putting on community colleges and the opportunity to have discussions at the highest levels.” The recurring theme of low completion rates at community colleges was a summit topic. Given the complexity of the issues community colleges face, what should the completion rate be? He replied that this was a good question. Oh, well. (Disclosure: In a June column, I applied to be AACC president.).

When the community college situation fogs up for me, I turn to students and faculty. In my 7 a.m. College Writing I class Monday at Bunker Hill Community College, I asked what I could find out for them at the Summit. A Navy veteran, who had served in Iraq, said he needed to know more about learning skills for a civilian career. His Navy skills, he said, were not marketable. Another student stopped me after class. He had spent five years in federal prison. “My skills aren’t really transferable,” he said. Where could he get some advice? I have no new answers for either of them.

The day began with a familiar tale. I stopped at Marvelous Market, a bakery and deli near the Inside Higher Ed offices. I asked the women serving me if they went to community college. “My sister, Sonia, does,” Lilian Ramos told me. “She’s going to Prince George’s Community College, studying to be a registered nurse. She has a scholarship from the federal government that’s taking a long time to process. She started school more than three months ago. She still doesn’t have the money. Now she has to pay from her own pocket until she’s reimbursed. But the courses are good.”

Lilian herself? “I am just 21. I have to give my mother’s information for financial aid. She works two jobs and we both work, so we make too much money for the federal scholarship,” she said. Lilian told me she works 60 hours a week. Forty at the bakery and another 20 as a supervisor at a cleaning company. The company where her mother worked closed. “Now, we make less money, so I think I can qualify for the federal scholarship.” A breakout session at the Summit did cover the need to continue simplifying federal financial aid and broadening eligibility. So, I have an answer for Lilian.

I was the pool reporter for “The Importance of Community Colleges to Veterans and Military Families,” one of the six breakout sessions. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listened for most of the first half of the meeting. He then took an active role, asking again and again what the military can do to help the transition to college. His worry is that troops just focus on the end date of their service. Getting their attention on important matters that await them after leaving the service is more difficult.

Mullen said that throughout his career, he asked those leaving the military who say they will go to college, “Do you really mean that? Or are you just saying that because you know I’ll like the answer, and we can end this conversation?”

“I don’t know how much [those leaving the service] know about community colleges. That’s on us,” Mullen said. At Bunker Hill, I work with veterans every day. That the Summit attracted this attention from Mullen was my high point for the day.

In the East Room, I asked a White House press corps regular how the event ranked, one to ten, in terms of stops the White House could pull out. "A five," he said, though "you didn't hear it from me." The East Room wasn't set up for cramming in as many people as possible. "Half-day event, all day spin. The Big Man isn't going to the wrap up. That's definitely a five." We press were roped off in the back third of the East Room, and the 100 or so of us didn't fill the space.

I counted four empty seats among the guests. (Among the guests, unlike my community college classes, no piercings other than earlobes. No Jordans. No Nikes.) As a matter of proportionality, the President of the United States has the whole world and parts of outer space in his hands, and he showed up to speak, not wave. The White House is The White House is The White House. Five out of ten? Plenty generous for community colleges.

For urgency at community colleges, veterans leads all other issues. As a matter of focus and priority, having the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs devote an hour in a breakout session is 100 on a 1-10 scale. Thank you, Mr. President.

What, then, do I know after a day at the White House? I still prefer cash to spotlights and buzz. Thanks to the White House, community colleges had unprecedented attention from President Obama and in the national press. That’s great. I’ll take it with a jump for joy. What will community colleges do in this spotlight? Well, I’ll hope for unprecedented action, no excuses.

That I.F. Stone quote, to get me through the day? “You've really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you're sunk.” I’m in the clear. The White House had bag lunches for guests and officials, not the press.

Oh, I learned that some parts of the White House have no cell phone signal, and I missed a call. My mother, 86, left a message. She sounded upset. I called back. “Where are you?” she asked. When does a son get this chance? I told her. “A lighthouse? What are you doing at a lighthouse?” Back to earth and community college.


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