OVERWORKED, UNDERPAID, AND UNAPPRECIATED is an easy way to describe the community college sector, but all that is about to change. In July, President Obama announced the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), which provides funding to improve efforts to increase the number of students graduating from community colleges. The initiative is part of the goal of increasing the number of Americans with higher ed degrees by 2020. That translates to 5 million people with community college degrees and certificates.
“The president understands he can’t achieve the goal of us being a leader by 2020 if he looks exclusively at school age children coming through the pipeline,” says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. “It’s important to look at adults as well.”
Community college leaders are excited by the attention their institutions are receiving and are ready to step up to the challenge. Although the proposed $12 billion in funding sounds like a lot, it might not go far. “There is only about $6 billion in the access and completion section,” says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “If you spread that over 10 years and over a significant number of colleges it isn’t a lot.” The funds will be enough to encourage innovation, but states will have to contribute as well, he says.
Congress went on break before the final legislation was passed. Despite the initiative being up in the air, Boggs was one of several leaders who shared their thoughts on the future and what they would say about the initiative if they had five minutes alone with Obama.
“I think the first thing is to express appreciation to the president that he has recognized the important role community colleges play,” Boggs says.
He hopes a mechanism, such as mentoring, is put in place to ensure all colleges have a fair shot at funding, not just ones with the resources to afford grant writers.
Anita Gliniecki, president of Housatonic Community College (Conn.), would “ask him to make sure we can access the funds at the college level. I worry that if the initiative goes through the state, the funds might not be as accessible.” Her concern stems from ongoing budget difficulties at the state level and the tendency of previous programs to favor the K-12 sector.
Broad suggests distributing the money through a competitive model, with colleges submitting proposals, as the best way to leverage the funds.
Another concern is states shouldn’t be allowed to reduce funding because a college receives money through the AGI. “Community colleges are experiencing a lot of financial restrictions. But the federal government cannot become the financer of education,” says Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit focused on access and education attainment.
“I believe that these institutions are key in our long-term economic and workforce recovery,” says Linda Serra Hagedorn, director of the Research Institute for Studies in Education at Iowa State University.
She says the funds for infrastructure are important because community colleges are at capacity as they attempt to accommodate more traditional-age students, as well as the surge of unemployed workers seeking retraining.
Instead of trying to expand existing programs such as I-BEST, Achieving the Dream, and Bridges to Opportunities across the nation, Hagedorn urges more research into why some elements of these programs work before widespread adoption is attempted. “Without sufficient research we are doomed to continue the same patterns of service,” she says.
Focusing on the programs that have been successful at Achieving the Dream schools and determining how to apply those elements to other institutions is probably better than attempting to create a national model, Merisotis agrees.
He suggests Achieving the Dream could be considered as one model for the initiative. “We’ve had five years of doing what this initiative is all about,” he says. Improving college readiness, remedial education, and retention are important to the goal of increasing student success.
College success programs, small classes, and dual enrollment are all currently successful programs Obama cited when announcing the initiative. “We have to figure out what is working and replicate them,” Boggs says of existing programs.
“As the initiative is currently written, we have programs in place which would qualify,” says Gliniecki. Housatonic was one of 16 colleges nationwide to receive a grant from the Gates Foundation and nonprofit economic and workforce research organization MDC to focus on improving remedial education. The college offers self-paced math classes and plans to develop self-paced English classes.
Success coaching for new students and college readiness programs for area high school students are other programs that fit the American Graduation Initiative. “These are staff-intensive programs, and you need the funding to continue at those levels,” Gliniecki says. The various programs have increased retention rates from the fall to spring semester to 70 percent, although she admits graduation rates have room to improve.
“When we read about [Obama’s] speech, we felt we were already engaged,” says Dick Helton, president of Vincennes University (Ind.). “I would tell him that many of those innovative concepts are already in place at Vincennes.”
The institution opened a facility focused on manufacturing this past March and also offers baccalaureates in areas with workforce shortages. The school also provides space on campus for a WorkOne center, a state initiative providing career services and training to displaced workers. The college’s robust distance ed program has more than 25 majors available. Helton points out that Vincennes is not only answering Obama’s call for worker training but has been for years.
“Community colleges have long been recognized as an element in providing access to postsecondary opportunities, but they haven’t been recognized for their workforce development,” says Merisotis.
“One of the most important parts of the Obama plan is the development of bridge courses for online independent learning,” says Broad. The AGI calls for the development of 20 to 25 high-quality high school and college level courses, which will be distributed for free through either community colleges or the Defense Department’s distributed learning network.
According to AACC data, more than 90 percent of all two-year public institutions offer online programs. Focusing efforts on developing basic skills courses that can be distributed across the nation is an exciting idea, Boggs says.
Getting to a zero-cost model for the program might be hard to achieve, says Merisotis, but it will be worth the effort. “All of this is a package. The online piece isn’t going to solve all problems, but neither are the other elements. They will all contribute,” he says.
The program isn’t a done deal yet, since funding for the initiative would come from money saved by eliminating the FFELP in favor of Direct Lending. “There are significant opponents,” cautions Boggs. Among them are the banks that would lose the loan funding and some university leaders who are upset about one sector of higher ed being singled out. The AACC is mobilizing member colleges, as well as business partners, to contact member of Congress in support of the initiative. Boggs hopes the legislation is wrapped up by October and predicts, “If this doesn’t pass now, it won’t.”