President Barack Obama on Tuesday ripped into what he said are Republican plans to trim funding for education by 20 percent to pay for a tax cut “for people who don’t need it” at a time when America has sunk to ninth in the percentage of its population with college degrees.
“China isn’t slashing education by 20 percent, India isn’t slashing education by 20 percent,” Obama said. “That’s like unilaterally disarming our troops right as they head to the frontlines.”
The GOP “Pledge to America” includes termination of all unspent stimulus funds – $2 billion for community colleges is set to be spent over the next four years – and a return to pre-stimulus spending levels, plus continuation of all of the 2000 tax cuts, including for the wealthy.
Speaking at the opening of the first White House Community College Summit, Obama proposed new partnerships between American industry and the colleges as a way to prepare students for jobs in the high-technology economy, and formally announced a new federal initiative called Skills for America to encourage such cooperation.
That was one of several announcements made during the opening session, attending by the likes of Zac Bissonnette of the University of Massachusetts and author of a new book that advocates starting college at a community college; Michael Francesoni of UPS’s Kentucky headquarters, which worked with local colleges to create a special educational program for its overnight air delivery employees; and Derek Blumke, founder of Student Veterans of America, which helps military veterans transition to college.
Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a five-year $35 million program to support higher community college completion rates – now hovering around 22 percent for those who complete a certificate or associate degree program or transfer to another educational institution within three years of enrollment.
Also in the offing: a new $1 million annual prize, to be known as the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Support for the prize is coming from the Aspen Institute, the Joyce and Lumina foundations, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America.
The summit, convened by Obama and Jill Biden, a community college instructor and the vice president’s wife, is designed to throw a spotlight on this little recognized segment of the American post secondary education system and show that the Obama administration is banking on these schools both to lead the race that will make the U.S. the best-educated nation in the world and to drive the engine to put more Americans back to work.
“America doesn’t play for second place,” Obama said, reinforcing his goal to produce 5 million more college graduates in this country by 2020.
The Obama administration sees community colleges – already the fastest growing segment of higher education, as the recession puts four-year colleges out of the reach of many and those out of work seek training for new jobs – at the intersection of higher education and American industry.
At a briefing Monday in advance of the summit, Assistant Secretary of Labor Jane Oakes called community colleges the “cornerstone” of job training and development, noting that community colleges can respond quickest to the needs of industry for new or improved training.
Individual sessions during the afternoon sessions (which were not open to the news media) focused on six specific topics: Industry partnerships, college completion, pathways to four-year degrees, financial aid, military and veterans programs and community colleges of the future.
Target of new initiatives
At Monday’s pre-summit briefing, Melody Barnes, Obama’s domestic policy council director, said the Gates money will be targeted at nine states with large numbers of low-income students: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington. Community colleges and groups of community colleges in those states will be eligible to compete for funds for to pay for programs that promise dramatic increases in completion rates.
Melinda Gates said during the summit opening session that the funds are designed to help community college respond better to the needs of students transitioning to post-secondary education and to focus more on non-traditional enrollees (that is, those who are not just students) with more counseling, more financial aid, better academic counseling, streamlined admissions, targeted remediation and greater use of technology in the classroom.
Gates noted that such non-traditional students are now the majority of those enrolled in higher education institutions. She also championed “earn and learn,” a system through which students can earn credit for the jobs they already have. “In this country,” Gates told the crowd gathered in the White House East room, “hard work is supposed to pay off.”
A fourth major initiative involving community colleges was contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus act) and will send a total of $2 billion to community colleges over the next four years to help increase the percentage and number of students who complete a credential or an associate degree, or who transfer to another institution of higher education.
Without actually saying it, the Obama administration officials and others are urging community colleges to take their cues from some of the arsenal employed by for-profit colleges: distance (online) classes, greater use of technology, more convenient class times and quicker response to the requirements of local businesses and other emp