Paul Sancya/AP
President Obama speaks at Macomb Community College Tuesday in Warren, Mich. He is proposing a $12 billion effort to help the two-year institutions reach, teach, and train more people for 'the jobs of the future.'

Obama directs $12 billion to community colleges

The goal is to help 5 million people earn degrees and certificates, especially displaced workers.

President Obama announced plans Tuesday for an unprecedented $12 billion federal investment in community colleges over the next 10 years.

Speaking at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., where displaced workers have been flocking for retraining, he set the goal of an additional 5 million people earning associate’s degrees and certificates by 2020. To assist community colleges, his “American Graduation Initiative” would:

• Create a community college “challenge fund” – competitive grants to foster innovative partnerships among colleges, businesses, workforce investment systems, and high schools.

• Fund promising approaches to help community college students reach graduation and secure good jobs, and establish a research center to measure the colleges’ success.

• Modernize community college facilities through funding that could pay the interest on bonds or seed capital campaigns.

• Create a new online skills laboratory: The US Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor would collaborate with community colleges to offer free online courses, in part to expand opportunities for working adults and rural students.

The president’s proposal is “hugely significant,” says Carol Lincoln, national director of Achieving the Dream, an initiative coordinated by MDC Inc. in Chapel Hill, N.C., to improve completion rates at community colleges. “Community colleges have not been given the resources they need to do the job we expect them to do, and this is going to be a tremendous boost.”

Mr. Obama compared this investment in the 21st-century workforce to the “transformative” moments when land-grant colleges were established under President Lincoln and when the original GI Bill “ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity.” He positioned community colleges as an “undervalued asset” that could help the US return to being the country with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

Community colleges have done well in expanding access and enrollment, but now, Ms. Lincoln says, “we need to have a stronger focus on making sure that students ... really get to the certificates and degrees ... that are needed in a competitive workforce.”

The challenge grants could help spread approaches that community colleges in the Achieving the Dream network have tested.

Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Va., for instance, found that students with borderline placement scores needed a quick brush-up on math rather than intensive remediation. It placed them in accelerated remedial courses and they passed at a rate of 60 percent, compared with 27 percent in traditional remedial classes.

Many students who start in remedial courses never make it to the stage of earning credits. And nearly half of community college students don’t complete their intended certificate or degree within six years.

House Education and Labor Committee chairman, Rep. George Miller (D) of California, announced plans to introduce the president’s proposal on Wednesday as part of legislation to make college more affordable. To pay for such initiatives, Obama and congressional leaders hope to save tens of billions of dollars by reforming the student loan system to remove subsidies paid to banks and private lenders.

In the meantime, community colleges in states such as California and Florida are having to turn away people or cope with overcrowded classrooms.

“Displaced workers ... or even students whose parents can no longer afford to send them to four-year university, all of them are converging on community colleges at the same time states are cutting back funding,” says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. He hopes states will use some of their stimulus money to ease the crunch while colleges await the influx of support the president has proposed.

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