Community Colleges Go to the Head of the Class Under President Obama’s Plan

Community colleges have often been the ugly stepchild of higher education.

The two-year institutions don’t command the respect of four-year colleges. They enroll 6 million students nationwide, taking all comers, college-ready or not. Perhaps no other institution of higher education has taken on the failures of K-12 schools with so little complaint, offering remedial courses in math, English and even science.

So community college officials welcomed President Obama’s announcement of a $12 billion initiative centered on their development and progress.

The goals are to raise graduation rates by an additional 5 million by 2020; modernize facilities; create more online courses, and help community colleges strengthen ties to the business community to more clearly delineate the path to good-paying jobs. Competitive grants would be made available for innovative programs.

Funding for the initiative would come in part from reform of the student loan program, which now provides subsidies to banks and private lenders. Shifting to direct lending would save $5 billion, according to government estimates.

In his announcement last week, Obama invoked the land-grant colleges established by President Abraham Lincoln, and the GI Bill signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt after World War II. Clearly, he wants this effort to match those legendary reforms.

"The fact that he gave the speech is significant," said Lawrence Nespoli, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, which represents 19 schools. "There’s a coming of age of community colleges."

At Passaic County Community College, there are some 12,000 students enrolled, including 1,800 single mothers. Passaic’s president, Steven Rose, said he was impressed by Obama’s remarks and the government’s push behind community colleges. "They seem to understand what’s going on. They seem to recognize it’s a diverse student body with diverse needs."

Rose said the biggest issue facing the college is the varying level of student preparedness. "We’re getting more students out of high school, and we still have older students," Rose said. "But one-size remedial program does not fit all." Teens fresh out of high school might just need a 5-hour refresher in math; older students may need a longer, intensive course.

Obama’s program would allow Passaic and other community colleges to create remedial programs geared toward specific populations and apply for grants to get them up and running.

Nespoli said the President’s proposal fits like "a hand in glove" with the state’s own planning around workforce development, facilities construction and online courses. Now it’s not just about access and affordability, Nespoli said, but access to success. More high school students are choosing community colleges in the current recession, more adults are coming in for retraining in fields like nursing and education, and those currently employed are taking classes to keep their skillset up to date.

Community colleges are a good place to start and serve as one important component in the president’s efforts to lift employment numbers.

The average tuition is $91.30 per credit hour, or $2,739 per year for a full-time student — a bargain compared to Rutgers’ $9,546 per year for full-time, in-state students. But still out of reach for many people.

We hope among the innovations proposed by the two-year colleges are ways to ease that financial burden for those who most need the educational and career boost. (The Star Ledger)

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