Understanding Obama’s Community-College Makeover

July 15, 2009 08:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
President Obama has announced a $12 billion plan to transform America’s community colleges and raise graduation rates. What does it mean for today’s college students?

The American Graduation Initiative

At Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., President Obama unveiled a 10-year plan to revitalize America’s community colleges. In addition to boosting graduation rates, the plan aims to renovate facilities and upgrade online course offerings, USA Today reported.

In a recent Washington Post article, Obama explained what makes these institutions so important. “Our community colleges can serve as 21st-century job training centers, working with local businesses to help workers learn the skills they need to fill the jobs of the future,” he wrote.  The president also declared his goal to make the U.S. the world leader in college degrees by 2020.

According to the Associated Press, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the country. “[S]ome of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won't be coming back,” Obama conceded, according to AP.

This fact makes higher education even more critical for the nation’s future, Obama said. He noted that the number of jobs requiring more than a high school diploma will likely double, and if Americans don’t have the requisite training—skills a community college could provide—companies will be forced to outsource the work, AP reported.

Andy Van Kleunen, executive director of The Workforce Alliance in Washington D.C., told USA Today, “[N]ow is the time to get workers re-skilled so they are ready to hit the ground running once the recovery is underway.”

Background: A closer look at the community-college initiative

According to White House officials, a portion of the funding for the new program will be funneled from a $4 billion federal student loan program they plan to terminate, USA Today reported. 

Taking excerpts from Obama’s speech, the White House Web site quoted Obama as saying, “[W]e pay for this plan by ending the wasteful subsidies we currently provide to banks and private lenders for student loans, which will save tens of billions of dollars over the next ten years.” According to The Wall Street Journal, the Congressional Budget Office has projected a savings of $87 billion over the next 10 years.

A majority of the funding—$9 billion—will be allotted to grants intended to encourage community colleges and states to adapt a curriculum that would improve graduation rates and better prepare graduates for careers or other four-year institutions, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Some $2.5 billion will finance plans to modernize campus facilities, including expanding classroom sizes and improving technology centers. The remaining $500 million will be spent on designing an online curriculum, according to The Journal.

James Kvaal, special assistant to the president for economic policy, explained to USA Today that the new strategy would be to “let colleges try some new things. Those that work get new funding."

Historical Context: The first community colleges

The first junior colleges in the United States opened in the early 20th century. Most were two-year, “career oriented” programs. According to History.com, community colleges were developed to “serve students who may not wish to pursue, or who may not be ready to undertake, a 4-year education.”

By the 1980s, more than 10 million students were attending community colleges every year, the Organization of American Historians reported. According to David B. Mock, a writer for the OAH, the philosophy behind community college is that everyone can benefit from an education, meaning a high school diploma is often the only prerequisite. “The absence of a rigorous admission standard frequently results in the acceptance of students who require extensive remediation before progressing to college-level work,” Mock wrote.

Today, 6.7 million students or 36 percent of America’s undergraduate and graduate college students attend two-year colleges, The Wall Street Journal reported. Besides being older than typical college students, most often work longer hours at jobs. Less than a third of community college students receive Associate degrees in three years or less.

Related Topic: Free tuition at Texas A&M University

In December 2008, Texas A&M University announced it would grant students whose families earned less than $30,000 free admission as long as the students maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

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