President Barack Obama's $12 billion proposal to boost community colleges would bring new opportunities - and demands - to the youth field.
If Obama's American Graduation Initiative becomes reality, the chief task for the field would be to help disengaged youth get mentally and academically prepared to return to school, according to the heads of two agencies that work on behalf of youth.
"I think one of the most important things that [youth agencies] could be supporting are efforts by community colleges and by state systems of community colleges to address the challenge of those who come to the doors of community college under-prepared," said Richard Kazis, senior vice president at the Boston, Mass.-based Jobs for the Future.
Sally Prouty, CEO of The Corps Network, says community-based organizations (CBOs) should partner with community colleges to prepare disengaged youths for the demands of higher education.
"Our hope is that there will be an ever-increasing show of support from community colleges to work with the CBOs to ensure that young people who are enrolled actually stay in college and graduate," said Prouty, whose D.C.-based membership organization represents service and conservation corps.
Such partnerships, which enable community colleges to spend less time on remedial education, are only "randomly occurring" around the country now, Prouty said. "Our desire would be to see it systematically occurring."
While the president's proposal was met with gushing praise in the education industry, there is reason for caution.
Will it happen?
Higher education leaders and workforce development experts say there's much work to be done to make the initiative a reality, particularly because its funding would come from projected savings gained by retooling the financial aid system.
"We do not yet have a detailed understanding of how the proposal will work," American Council on Education President Molly Corbett Broad said in a prepared statement, after accompanying Obama at his announcement Tuesday at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich.
Broad noted that funding would come from savings generated through the Obama administration's plan to eliminate the Family Federal Education Loan Program, which would require congressional approval. Observers expect a lot of back-and-forth negotiations between the White House and congressional budget and appropriations committees.
"The issue will be: Do we assume we're going to get this much savings in changing the student loan program and appropriate the money on that assumption, or do we wait until we get the money?" said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. "I assume no one wants to wait until we get the money. But there will be people on the budget committee and elsewhere who say we don't want to spend money we don't have in hand yet."
Among other things, the initiative calls for adding 5 million community college graduates by 2020.
Three-fourths of the money ($9 billion) would be awarded to many of the nation's approximately 1,200 community colleges through a competitive grant process - similar to the Obama administration's $5 billion competitive grant program, "Race to the Top," to help states to improve K-12 education systems.
"When you set up a competitive program, you provide incentives for people to do their best," said Marc Tucker, president of the D.C.-based National Center on Education and the Economy, and vice chairman of the New Commission on Skills of the American Workforce.
"When you dole out money on a formula, people know they can get it whether they do things effectively or not," Tucker said.
Community college leaders welcome the competitive process. "We really want to focus on what is working. That doesn't work by formula," said Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College of New York. "It works by people being creative, entrepreneurial, using data and what are the best practices."
The initiative would also include $2.5 billion to improve community college infrastructure.
Community college leaders hope the initiative would enable them to make seats available to students who are currently put on waiting lists. At LaGuardia, Mellow said, the nursing program serves 120 students, while 300 more are on the waiting list.
The right jobs
For disconnected youths, the timing of the proposal might be just right.
Investing in community colleges is particularly wise during a recession, when the country needs a quick return on its educational investments, said Carnevale.
"In a recession, that's the time when it makes sense to go to school, because you're not giving up as much," Carnevale said.
He said community college is a particularly good place for youths to get training for jobs once the economy rebounds. While it usually takes at least four years to earn a degree at a four-year college, he noted, it takes one or two years to earn a certificate or a degree at community colleges. Those students are then ready for jobs in such sectors as health care, construction and protective services, like police and fire departments.