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Obama's Best Bet: $5 Billion for Community Colleges

September 21, 2011

(Editor's Note: This article appeared in the Sept. 14, 2011, edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education)

By David Baime

During the economic downturn, the nation's community colleges have experienced extraordinary growth under duress. In just the past three years, more than 1.4 million additional Americans turned to community colleges to help them realize their educational aspirations or acquire the skills to hang onto a job. That brought last fall's total enrollments to 8.2 million.

At the same time, with few exceptions, community colleges endured brutal cuts in the state and local support that accounted for 55 percent of their revenue. Their per-student spending shrank from 2008 to 2009 by 3.4 percent, more than any other higher education sectors, according to the latest Delta Cost Project report on college spending trends, released Wednesday.

The report confirms that "community colleges bore the brunt" of cuts in support to higher education. In the institutional triaging that resulted, direct expenditures for classroom instruction were given priority over virtually every other campus function. The consequences are disheartening: reductions in academic counseling, closed child-care centers, terminations of programs for high-school students, the shedding of institutional researchers, and the loss of many other essential activities. The cuts have hit bone.

Another casualty of these straitened financial conditions has been the physical plants of community colleges. Even in the best of times, identifying funds for large-scale infrastructure projects is a feat. The projects are large and complex, involve huge sums of money, and have profound long-term institutional consequences. Many financing mechanisms are employed, including direct expenditures, the floating of bonds, sale-leaseback arrangements, and joint ventures with business and universities. These vehicles reflect diverse institutional governance and regulatory arrangements, but over all, the economic crisis has made financing facilities projects even more daunting.

Community colleges' campuses and facilities vary greatly. Many have the utilitarian and functional look of late-1960s architecture, while others occupy graceful former U.S. Mint buildings, 19th-century military structures, or elegant but abandoned university structures. Given today's fiscal situation, the American Association of Community Colleges was not surprised to learn that community colleges have as much as $100 billion of infrastructure needs, including new construction, renovation, and heavy equipment.

This colossal and abstract financial figure translates into thousands of potential students' either not receiving an education or settling for subpar learning environments, because there is a direct connection between classroom space and the scope, quality, and character of instruction. That is particularly the case as technology infuses all aspects of higher education and e-learning, wherever it may take place, becomes the norm.

There are also negative implications for energy efficiency, community engagement and student access.

Given this situation, community college campuses are enormously appreciative of President Obama's proposed $5 billion for their modernization as part of his American Jobs Act. The proposal represents the administration's continued commitment to community colleges, following earlier presidential efforts such as Bill Clinton's Hope Scholarship tax credit and George W. Bush's Community-Based Job Training Grants.

Community colleges do not take this sustained recognition and support for granted. They have been blessed by strong bipartisan backing, as evidenced by the robust bipartisan community college caucuses in both the House and the Senate.

How might facilities-modernization funds be used?

At St. Louis Community College, renovation funds could update 30 science labs, supporting courses in physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology and biology, which can lead to careers in nursing, dental hygiene and engineering.

Montgomery County Community College, in Pennsylvania, could create classrooms for a degree program in environmental sciences. Mount Wachusett Community College, in Massachusetts, could improve its science and technology classrooms to enhance partnerships with biotechnology and energy-management companies. Iowa Central Community College could train unemployed and dislocated workers in a rural location where job opportunities do not exist.

The list goes on.

In the debate over the president's proposal, some will question whether the federal government has an appropriate role in supporting college and university infrastructure. History has an answer: From 1966 to 1978, the federal government provided $15.9 billion, in constant dollars, for higher-education infrastructure. Indeed, many community college campuses still display the legacy of that federal support, and many of those facilities are the very same ones that now need to be upgraded.

Officials in other sectors of higher education may pause when they see a significant federal initiative specifically for community colleges, as was the case with President Obama's American Graduation Initiative (though more than $3 billion of that $12 billion was for higher education writ large). After all, they will say, one of the beauties of the federal student financial aid system, which has enjoyed remarkable political support since its establishment, is that it provides basically the same benefits regardless of the college that a student attends.

But in the jockeying over resource allocation, it should be recalled that community colleges educate 44 percent of all the undergraduates enrolled in nonprofit higher education, including 52 percent of all Hispanic students and 44 percent of all African-Americans. The colleges also enroll the highest percentages of low-income students. At the same time, they have far fewer resources than other types of institutions; on a per-student basis, community colleges' educational and general expenditures are less than half those at public research institutions.

This is both unfortunate and illogical, since community colleges serve those who are least well-prepared for higher education. Community college leaders believe that providing a more level institutional playing field is consistent with the federal government's traditional role in ensuring equality of opportunity in higher education.

Economists who see a continued role for the federal government in catalyzing economic activity urge immediate action, which community colleges are ready and eager to take if they are provided with substantial funds for their facilities. As a routine matter, the colleges develop master facilities plans, often in concert with local and state entities, to be ready to move quickly when capital becomes available. What's more, the default mode for community colleges is one of growth.

Community college presidents, trustees and others appreciate the political challenges of enacting President Obama's proposal, but they will advocate aggressively for it, knowing that these funds could dramatically increase the quality and scope of their programs, which are an essential element of the country's return to economic health.

David Baime is senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.