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Educators Urged to Build Coalitions to Advance Community Colleges

February 12, 2015

Board of trustees visit with Sen. McCaskill 

President Obama's free community college plan was the main topic of discussion at this year's Community College National Legislative Summit. Nearly 1,000 community college trustees, chancellors and presidents gathered in Washington D.C., Feb. 9-12, for their annual advocacy conference, sponsored by the Association of Community College Trustees.

"We heard constant conversation from both sides of the political spectrum around how to take the next step in this initiative," said STLCC Board Chair Craig Larson, who attended the conference with fellow board member Doris Graham, and STLCC Interim Chancellor Dennis F. Michaelis.

"No one argues about increasing the focus on the importance of going to school for two years beyond high school," he said. "But the issue of how to pay for it is the question."

Larson said a "K-14" system, which extends a free public education to two years past high school, would be a "real game changer" in the long run - particularly for older students, such as single parents, who could use their Pell grants to pay their living expenses while in school.

"The kernel of this idea is to remove the hurdles that people face in going back to college," he said, noting that the current proposal is to cover anyone who qualifies as a "responsible student" with a 2.5 grade point average or better and not just recent high school graduates.

"It's a nice sweetener to be able to tell students that they have another two years to hone their skills after high school," added Larson.

Trustees Larson and Graham and Interim Chancellor Michaelis also met with Missouri U.S. Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill to advocate for Pell Grants, and met with aides for Missouri U.S. Representatives Ann Wagner and William Lacy Clay Jr. In conversations with the Missouri congressional delegation, STLCC officials emphasized the importance of extending Pell Grant availability to students studying in programs that also require summer attendance.

While community college leaders are hopeful that President's Obama's free community college plan will survive legislative scrutiny, educators were cautioned that it could take time. James Kvaal, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, urged community college leaders to "take the long view" and continue their advocacy efforts at the federal, state, local and philanthropic levels.

Second Lady Jill Biden, a longtime community college English professor, said the Obama administration will build a coalition of lawmakers, philanthropists and higher education leaders to continue efforts to advance community colleges.

"This is the moment for community colleges to shine," she said.

You can hear Mrs. Biden's full remarks at the summit using this link.