Operation overload: community colleges told to do even more

Obama rallies Cinderella sector to unemployment battle. Jon Marcus reports from the White House

November 6, 2010

They were an unlikely sight: under the crystal chandeliers of the East Room of the White House sat 120 representatives of the least influential, most maligned level of American higher education: community colleges.

These mostly open-access places of last resort cater for people who cannot get into the more prestigious four-year universities and cannot afford the tuition fees at private institutions.

They make up about half of all American undergraduates – 12 million students crowded into the nation’s 1,200 cash-strapped, publicly funded community college campuses.

Enrolment is booming – up 17 per cent in two years, even as 37 of the 50 states in the US have cut, or frozen, their education budgets.

But if they expected President Barack Obama to offer them financial aid, the community college students and officials were about to be sorely disappointed.

It turned out that he wanted them to become job centres.

“Community colleges aren’t just the key to the future of their students,” the president told the audience. “They are also one of the keys to the future of our country.”

While the president and other speakers at the White House Community College Summit last month referred to their educational missions, the emphasis was placed firmly on how community colleges would help to align classroom skills to workplace needs.

The day before the summit, Mr Obama announced a public-private partnership linking companies including McDonald’s with colleges to improve job training.

Some $500 million (£317 million) in previously announced grants to the colleges will now come from the Department of Labor, not the Department of Education.

“We are in a global competition to lead in the growth industries of the 21st century,” Mr Obama said, “and that leadership depends on a well-educated, highly skilled workforce.”

He had previously called for significantly higher US graduation rates, which have fallen behind those of rival countries.

However, the state legislators who pay for the institutions are cutting their budgets.

A previously promised 10-year, $12 billion infusion of federal funds to help them provide other educational services fell victim to budget wrangling in Washington.

Community colleges are now so crowded that some do not have enough seats in their classrooms, and classes are being held day and night, seven days a week, to cope.

Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, said they were gamely trying to accommodate the growing demands placed on them.

But now they will need to do more.

“Strengthening the community college system is critical for students and mid-career workers,” said Melody Barnes, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council and a key member of the team that is trying to reduce the nation’s stubborn unemployment rate.

But the problem, said Ms Kent, is this: “How do you keep the wheels on? Where does the funding come from? That’s the challenge. We’ve got issues just finding space for all the students who come to us already.”

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