No Community College Left Behind

WASHINGTON – With President Obama talking a big game about boosting support for community colleges, some educators have released a specific plan to do so in an ambitious way.

Thursday, the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program released a report chock-full of recommendations for the federal government to bolster its commitment to the country’s community colleges and help transform them into “engines of opportunity and prosperity.”

At a panel discussion to coincide with the report’s release, Sara Goldrick-Rab, lead author of the report and professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, argued that only by embracing community colleges could the Obama administration hope to accomplish its goal of the United States having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Among the report’s key recommendations, it challenges the federal government to double its current direct level of support to America’s community colleges so that federal funds would account for more than 10 percent of their budgets. This, Goldrick-Rab said, would decrease community colleges’ dependence on local and state dollars – a dependence which, she argued, makes them more susceptible to economic downturns. She added that three-fourths of such funds should be ultimately be performance-based funding and that the remainder should be distributed based on enrollment figures.

In today’s budget figures, doubling this commitment would mean increasing the federal government’s direct support of community colleges from $2 billion to $4 billion. Considering that the government offers more than $60 billion per year to K-12 education and around $20 billion to public four-year institutions, Goldrick-Rab described her proposal as “modest.”

The report also calls for the government to guarantee that community colleges receive at least half of the $2.5 billion “College Access and Completion Fund” – a debated section of the 2009-10 federal budget that would support state efforts to boost the college completion rates of low-income students. It has not yet been specified if these funds would be set aside by sector.

Goldrick-Rab argued that such a distribution requirement is essential to ensure that four-year institutions – likely better placed to lobby for funds and show proven metrics – do not receive the lion’s share of the federal money meant to stimulate innovation. She went on to say that she would prefer it if the government gave some preference to community colleges when distributing these funds.

Another key recommendation, the report lobbies the government to “support the improvement of student data systems.” Having such a fully functioning system to “measure and track student outcomes,” Goldrick-Rab argued, would make it easier for the government to appropriate funding and improve accountability.

A representative from the White House echoed its support for this proposal, noting that it wanted to find a way to fund community colleges that would not “tie the states’ hands.” Cecilia Rouse, member of the White House Council of Economic Advisors and an economics professor on leave from Princeton University, said that although the administration was very interested in sub-baccalaureate degrees, there was not a lot of intimate knowledge about them. Echoing the report’s call for better student data collection, she noted that research is especially lacking with regard to these degrees. She used the federal government’s usage of the term “some college” in data collection as an example of a shortcoming.

Thomas C. Dawson, senior policy advisor for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said his philanthropic organization has welcomed the federal government’s interest in funding access and completion projects, particularly at community colleges. In the event that the “College Access and Completion Fund” is approved, he said Gates would continue to work more in terms of evaluation to partner with the government to pinpoint successful practices around the country.

Near the end of her presentation, Goldrick-Rab noted with some finality that “for far too long” the government and society has put “elite four-year institutions on pedestals” and set student ambition upon them. The time for community colleges, she seemed to imply, is now.

Most of the community college leaders and officials in attendance welcomed the report and Goldrick-Rab’s commentary with warm applause and excitement.

“I’m so pumped up by reading this,” said Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, in New York City. “Do you realize what this could mean?”

Now, Goldrick-Rab, Mellow and others will have to wait and see if the federal government will listen. (Inside Higher Ed)

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