New Deal for Community Colleges

In July of last year, while we were in the grips of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, President Obama announced plans for the American Graduation Initiative (AGI). This landmark proposal promises to provide unprecedented federal support to community colleges. If passed, it will give these local institutions resources to help students not only stay in school, but also leave school trained for 21st-century jobs. The president’s lofty goal: “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

This initiative came on the heels of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. That one-time infusion of cash helped stabilize schools and allowed them to keep faculty, staff, and other employees and programs with only minimal cuts. “The stimulus money basically stabilized us,” said Dr. Raymond Yannuzzi, president, Camden County College, Blackwood, NJ. “We didn’t gain anything, but we didn’t lose, and our budget remains tight.”

The AGI is a different animal. “That stimulus money went to many different groups and is mostly spent now,” said David Baime, senior vice president of government relations and research, The American Association of Community Colleges. “The American Graduation Initiative is designed specifically for community colleges and, if passed, comes with expectations.”

The AGI is a 10-year, $12B plan that could enhance community colleges on many levels, from physical infrastructure to workforce training to closing achievement gaps. A few of the plan’s facets include: “A Community College Challenge Fund” that will develop new and improved workforce training. Funds from this stream can be used for high-school dual enrollment and improved articulation with four-year institutions. Wrap-around services like tutoring and childcare can also come from this fund. The “College Access and Completion Fund” promises to fund innovative efforts to increase graduation and close achievement gaps.

The Initiative would give $2.5B to spur construction and renovation. The money could be used in a variety of ways, including paying off bond interest or as seed money for capital campaigns. The funds would give first priority to certain hot-button areas like green jobs, nursing, or building trades.

A national “Online Skills Laboratory” would grant money for the development of open, free courses for high-school and college career-oriented curricula. This program would be funded at $50M per year for 10 years.

Supporting the Ongoing Mission

Surprisingly, these initiatives are nothing new to community colleges. “These have always been our goals and mission,” said Luzelma Canales, interim associate dean, community engagement and workforce development, South Texas College, McAllen, TX. “But this new funding shows a shift in federal and state thinking. They are realizing that community colleges are the best places to deliver such programs.”

For instance, Canales pointed to “wrap-around services.” “We’ve been partnering with local workforce boards, transportation groups, and childcare opportunities for a long time to give our students access to these resources for years,” she said. “We’ve always been at the heart of these services. Now, with more funding, we can be even more innovative.”

Innovation is the key to receiving these funds. “The money is in the form of challenge and pilot grants,” said Dr. Yannuzzi. “Nationally there are over 1,500 community colleges that would compete for the funds.”

The competition would start with high-school students. Talented juniors and seniors could take half their courses at the community college and graduate from high school with an associate’s degree. “Our school has been doing this for a while,” admitted Canales. “Now we’re thinking, ‘How can we do the same thing with displaced workers?’”

Preparing Potential Students
As the AGI stresses success, community colleges are looking at students who may be getting Bs in high school but are still not ready for college. “It’s always a shock when students have to take a remedial class,” said Yannuzzi.  To avoid this setback Yannuzzi is developing placement tests to give to high-school juniors so high-school graduates leave prepared and ready to succeed.

Other initiatives to boost graduation include moving students from part-time to full-time. “Between 60 and 70 percent of our students are part-time, but historically part-timers don’t graduate at the same level as full-time students,” said Canales. To keep students interested full-time, schools are trying programs like offering certificates in less time. “There are seven high-demand occupations in Texas that we offer certificates for in nine months now instead of the traditional 12 to 18,” she continued. “That got us thinking, what other degrees can we offer in less time?”

To accommodate these full-time students, community colleges are staying open later and longer. “We don’t offer midnight classes, but we have classes seven days a week on campus, classes in non-traditional settings like churches and high schools, and online offerings,” said Yannuzzi. “Our convenient locations also let us host baccalaureate and master programs from other schools.” Of course, more students on campus means schools need more physical spaces, both academic and social.

Enrollment Is Expected to Increase

More than half of all students who go to college choose a community college, according to Yannuzzi, and that number promises to rise. “Nationally, community college enrollment is up about 16 percent this year,” he said. The AGI acknowledges the importance of the schools and the changing work world around us. “Every field has grown more sophisticated,” Yannuzzi continued. “Even automotive maintenance demands extensive computer knowledge.”

Canales agreed. “We are always reinventing ourselves to meet our community’s needs,” she said. “We can never afford to be complacent. There is no such thing as ‘business as usual.’”

Whether House Bill 3221 passes or not, Yannuzzi sees it as an acknowledgment of the work he and his colleagues have been doing for years.  “It’s recognition that everyone needs a degree,” he said. “Of course I hope it passes, but even if it doesn’t, community colleges will continue on this path. We will always do the best with what we have.”