President Obama’s Community College Initiative: Much to Like

By July 16, 2009General

With the House health tax bill and the MLB All-Star Game sucking all the political/media air out of the room, too little attention has gone to President Obama’s speech Tuesday at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. (Transcript) With his “American Graduation Initiative” the President outlined policy and funding initiatives to promote education and workforce training through the community colleges. Manufacturers expend a lot of effort and money in training, and community colleges are often the closest partners they have, so the President’s emphasis is greatly appreciated.

The White House has prepared a fact sheet that summarizes the initiative.

It includes a call for five million additional community college graduates, albeit (and thankfully) defining “graduation” as including those who earn certificates and associate degrees. Training programs that lead to transferable, widely recognized skill credentials may be the most effective form of jobs-oriented education out there, so certificate programs should be regarded as highly as AA degrees.

The President also proposed the Community College Challenge Fund, competitive grants that would encourage collages to:

  • Build partnerships with businesses and the workforce investment system to create career pathways where workers can earn new credentials and promotions step-by-step, worksite education programs to build basic skills, and curriculum coordinated with internship and job placements.
  • Expand course offerings and offer dual enrollment at high schools and universities, promote the transfer of credit among colleges, and align graduation and entrance requirements of high schools, community colleges, and four-year colleges and universities.
  • Improve remedial and adult education programs, accelerating students’ progress and integrating developmental classes into academic and vocational classes.
  • Offer their students more than just a course catalog, through comprehensive, personalized services to help them plan their careers and stay in school.

These are very, very good,  consistent with the training priorities and approaches that NAM President John Engler and the Manufacturing Institute focus on. (See Engler’s speech at the Brookings’ Institution on middle-skills jobs.)

In addition, the President called for a new research center to develop ways to measure community colleges’ success. Measuring is essential for accounability. Again, excellent.

If there are weaknesses in the President’s proposals, it’s these:

The Washington Post headline included the price tag, “$12 Billion Will Fund New Web Courses, Construction and Innovation Grant.” The annual federal deficit just crossed $1 trillion. Where is the new spending going to come from? Another surtax on upper-income brackets? A federal cigarette tax increase? More borrowing and debt? Granted, this is a problem the President has with all new spending initiatives: How can we afford them?

Also, the trouble with federal workforce training policy generally is that programs keep accreting, more often then not driven by constituencies — public employees, organized labor — who resist getting rid of programs that don’t work. Let’s kill and consolidate as we embark on new and better things.

Commentator Mickey Kaus, a results-oriented Democrat, identified the problem concisely:

The network of community colleges is a powerful lobby. Solid citizen advocates in every district. They just got $12 billion from Obama. But do they do much good? Frederick Hess sees “some terrific institutions but [also] broad pockets of mediocrity.” (I was actually expecting a more sweeping indictment.) That leaves the usual Obama question: How much reform will accompany the large outlay of taxpayer funds? The auto bailout may have set a pattern, and it’s not a promising one. … Update: Here are some numbing details. I suppose “challenge grants” can produce reforms. But vouchers-where the consumers of education could decide where to go, potentially threatening mediocre schools with defunding, whether or not they have good lobbyists–seem more effective. … 5:11 P.M.

So, good, solid policy proposals from the President on a major priority for the manufacturing sector and the U.S. economy — successful workforce training. But a sharper focus on what works and what has already failed would add to the initiative’s seriousness.

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