Obama Pushes for More Aid to Community Colleges

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Paul Sancya / AP

President Obama speaks at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., to promote his plan for a $12 billion investment in community colleges

Poor community colleges. President Barack Obama made a historic announcement on July 14 — that he's seeking $12 billion over the next decade to beef up funding for these two-year institutions, which educate nearly half of U.S. undergrads — but you'd never know it from the crickets in medialand. CNN and Fox devoted no live airtime to the speech, which Obama delivered at Michigan's Macomb Community College, while MSNBC cut back to the Sotomayor confirmation hearings partway through. The fear of eyeballs glazing over isn't surprising: glamorous these trade schools are not. But there's a good reason why Obama calls community colleges "one of America's underappreciated assets." They set up their alumni for about a 30% earnings premium compared to high school grads, give a 16% return on every dollar state and local governments invest in them and are one of the best tools we have to pull ourselves out of the recession. In short, as Obama noted at Macomb, "community colleges are an essential part of our recovery in the present and our prosperity in the future."

That is, if Congress will approve the boost in federal funding for two-year schools, up from just $1.9 billion in 2006. Finding the cash to pay for this proposal hinges on Obama's plan to save money by nixing subsidies to private lenders under the Family Federal Education Loan Program. That legislation faces opposition from student-loan companies and some Republicans, who say the shift to direct lending — in which Uncle Sam acts as your loan officer — will cost thousands of jobs and keep colleges from choosing between competing loan programs eager to underbid one another.

Obama is dangling the possibility of more federal aid for community colleges just as they are grappling with state budget cuts as well as record enrollments, as laid-off workers rush to get retraining. Many of these two-year schools, which get about 30 cents for every dollar of per-student funding the Federal Government awards to four-year institutions, have had to let go of faculty or effectively cap enrollment.

The bulk of Obama's proposal, $9 billion, would go to helping schools try out promising programs to improve student learning, track progress and train workers. Another goal: nosing completion rates up from their current, abominable level: just 31% of community college students who seek a degree actually get one within six years. An additional $2.5 million would go to helping two-year schools rebuild their crumbling, outdated infrastructure — a key to equipping them to prepare students for high-tech jobs. Among the most compelling of the new proposals is the $500 million in grant money that would make online education more widely accessible by making it free.

The possibilities are intriguing. Even if all that passes, however, the Administration may still face a bigger challenge: getting Ivy League–obsessed Americans to notice.