The American Graduation Initiative: Good News for Community & Online Colleges

By Justin Vellucci

It’s an increasingly familiar scene. In November, 2009, students staged a peaceful gathering at University of California-Davis' Mrak Hall to protest tuition hikes.

Laura Mitchell, a 2005 Palo Alto High School graduate who attends UC-Davis, told the student paper “The Paly Voice” she was outraged by the tuition hike.

"It makes it impossible for an entire demographic of students to afford college education, which I think is essentially criminal," Mitchell said.

One option Mitchell could choose is seeking an accredited degree from a community college. There are 1,200 of the schools nationwide -- 120 of them in a state like California alone -- and 47 percent of all college students are currently attending them.

But community colleges have their own problems. Enrollment is skyrocketing, infrastructure is aging and government subsidies in the age of the budget cut are leaving many scrambling for resources.

President Barack Obama believes he has an answer. The American Graduation Initiative, announced by the president at Macomb Community College in Michigan in July, would aid America’s community colleges, encouraging them to make America more academically competitive globally by helping an additional five million people obtain degrees and certificates by 2020.

“Not since the passage of the original G.I. Bill and the work of President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education – which helped double the number of community colleges and increase by seven fold enrollment in those colleges – have we taken such a historic step on behalf of community college in America,” said Obama, in prepared statements.

“And let me be clear: we 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. Instead of lining the pockets of special interests, it’s time this money went toward the interest of higher education in America.”

The bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in September. It now moves to the Senate.

The program will funnel $12 billion over 10 years to community colleges, according to a breakdown by Inside Higher Ed. A total of $200 billion in scholarships and tax credits will be provided during that period and Obama proposes $2.5 billion for facilities improvements, a government investment that will generate or leverage another $10 billion.

The initiative also would create a new online learning skills laboratory, the president said. The investment will focus on interactive software, simulations and multimedia software, which supplement a traditional classroom education and are important tools for learners living in rural areas or working adults.

Sabrina Hutchinson knows the benefit of online learning. The staffing account manager from Washington enrolled at North Seattle Community College to learn about how the study of dinosaurs overlaps with other fields of science.

“I’m on the computer all day and then I come home and I’m on the computer again,” Hutchinson told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Online would be the way I would definitely want to go.”

In Washington, there were almost 70,000 community college students enrolled in online courses during the 2006-07 year, up from 40,000 just four years earlier, the P-I reported last year.  Online learning is largely responsible for accommodating this increase.

Attendance at the nation’s community colleges is surging across-the-board. The enrollment rate is increasing annually at more than twice the rate of that at four-year colleges, by 2.3 million students in the first half of this decade alone, a February 2009 Brookings report found.

Community colleges also face the large task of meeting many demands simultaneously. They serve students looking to transfer eventually to four-year colleges and universities, award two-year associate degrees in a variety of subjects, help re-train and provide credentialing to blue- and white-collar workers, and improve literacy and math skills for those with limited high school educations or those not yet prepared for a college education.

“Some colleges are pretty adept at meeting the needs of a wide range of learners,” George R. Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, told Degree America. “Part of what the American Graduation Initiative does is require us to learn more about what makes students successful – and do more of those things.”

Enrollment at colleges also is rising during the current recession as people losing jobs seek additional training. Tulsa Community College has seen its enrollment increase, giving it the largest freshman class of all Oklahoma state schools this fall.

"Us being a two-year college, affordability is important," Tulsa Community College President Tom McKeon told the Tulsa World, "I think we're seeing people look at community colleges as a viable option for the first two years because of its affordability.”

The freshman class at the school grew by 700 students from last year's class, and only 100 of them used the Tulsa Achieves program, which pays up to all of the tuition for Tulsa County students, the World reported.

California’s community colleges have other problems. They face a surge of enrollment from students turned away from four-year state schools that are capping the size of their classrooms.

As many as 30,000 students could get cut in 2010 from California State University campuses because of a lack of state funding -- a huge increase from the 4,000 student slots eliminated this fall to help deal with dwindling resources, the Whittier Daily News reported last month.

California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed said the state cut $600 million from its budget - a 20-percent drop.

"Denying students access to higher education is just about one of the worst things you can do in a recession," Reed told the Whittier Daily News. "But when your budget is cut so drastically, we are left with little choice but to restrict our enrollment."

Community colleges are bracing for the impact of enrollment cuts in California State University and the University of California systems.

"Any time students are denied access to four-year colleges and universities, we see a rise in the application of two-year" students, said Pasadena City College spokesman Juan Gutierrez. "Across the state, with UCs and CSUs raising tuition and restricting enrollment, students are looking at other alternatives. And community colleges are where they look."

At the same time, resources are strapped.

Directors of community colleges in many states expect reductions in state appropriations, according to survey results released recently by the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges.

Thirty-two of the 49 state directors of community colleges surveyed said stimulus bill money was not used for one-time expenditures and investments. Directors in most states said the money was used instead to backfill shortfalls in state revenue, the report said. Directors of community colleges in every state but South Dakota, which accounts for only 0.3 percent of the nation's community-college enrollment, participated in the survey.

The directors predicted troubling numbers -- that tuition at community colleges will rise at more than double the rate of inflation for the 2009-10 fiscal year, and that state operating-budget support for community colleges will decline by 1 percent in this fiscal year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

Obama’s investment in community colleges would be the largest single federal investment of its kind ever and the most significant contribution in decades, some say. Like the G.I. Bill generations earlier, it would educate a mass of people at a time when America’s financial future might depend on it. The needs of the market appear front and center, some say.

“It’s a desire to be more responsive to the needs of business and building mechanisms to do so,” said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, an education expert for the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C.. “It’s apparent to me the White House has a great devotion to thinking creatively about how technology can provide access to education, access to jobs and better serve more people.”


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