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Federal proposal would give $9 billion to community colleges

| Monday, Nov. 23, 2009

A plan to pump billions of federal dollars into the two-year college system is "the most far-reaching legislation in the history of community colleges," said Alex Johnson, president of the Community College of Allegheny County.

Fellow presidents of community colleges in Butler, Westmoreland and Beaver counties say nothing like it has been considered since President Harry Truman called for a national network of community colleges.

"I'm very excited about it," said Nicholas "Nick" Neupauer, president of Butler County Community College.

The proposal is part of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which passed the House in September. Pending before the Senate, the bill includes the American Graduation Initiative, which would provide about $9 billion of direct assistance to community colleges, said David Baime, vice president for government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Such federal efforts to aid community colleges never occurred before, said Martha J. Kanter, undersecretary for the Department of Education.

The bill proposes that community college officials be held accountable for student success, develop methods for measuring that success, graduate more students and help graduates obtain jobs, Baime said from his Washington office.

"We have something like 56 percent of the work force in our area who never went beyond high school," said Joe Forrester, president of Community College of Beaver County. "The economy is creating jobs where at least 60 percent of people need education beyond high school, and ultimately we'll need 80 percent. So this initiative is really an economic development initiative."

Particularly enticing is money for developmental classes -- such as reading, writing and math courses for people without college-level skills in those areas -- said Dan Obara, president of Westmoreland County Community College.

That would enable students to keep up in nursing programs, for example, because they require relatively high aptitudes in basic skills, Forrester said.

The act's aspirations dovetail with the goals of Westmoreland's community college, Obara said.

"It's striving for better completion rates, retention rates and graduation rates," he said. "Right now, we're conducting those initiatives from existing funds."

Competitive grants would allow schools to provide more programs and classes in general, Johnson said. That would be especially good for Community College of Allegheny County, which has its highest enrollment ever in credit classes at 20,677 students, he said.

Establishing more welding courses would be the first thing CCAC student Amanda Nolder, 25, would do with the bill's money.

"It'd be nice, because every class you try to sign up for seems to be full," said Nolder, of Elizabeth, who holds a 20-hour-a-week work-study job in the college's welding department.

Nolder is notable because of who she represents in American society, said Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington.

"About 40 percent of all students in higher education attend community colleges," Nassirian said. "Community colleges are the unsung heroes of our higher-education system. They play a significant role in terms of access to education for all Americans."

Enrollment in for-credit courses in Pennsylvania community colleges increased from about 160,000 during the 1995-96 academic year to an estimated 220,000 during this academic year, said Diane Bosak, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges in Harrisburg.

Perhaps most crucial about the House bill are its requirements that community colleges work with regional employers to train students for jobs the companies offer, Johnson said.

To that end, CCAC officials began fast-track certificate programs, such as the welding course, to augment traditional two-year associate degrees -- which Nolder plans to earn.

This month, CCAC officials announced that laid-off workers could enroll in 11 certificate programs -- including for EMT or accounting training -- without having to pay tuition or fees.

And, Johnson said, the school is beginning a "green institute" with the county to teach skills including weatherization, which would show residents and businesses how to save money on energy use, so graduates could earn money immediately upon finishing.

By demonstrating the school has such programs, it becomes more competitive when applying for federal grants that would be available if the bill passes, Johnson said.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, a member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said he and his colleagues are drafting a version of the bill.

"I will also work to ensure that this bill encourages strong partnerships between community colleges and regional employers and industry, so that workers are trained with the skills that employers need," Casey said.

Kanter said those employer needs are becoming more demanding.

"Thirty of the fastest-growing industries -- such as biotech -- require a minimum of a bachelor's degree," Kanter said.

That's why another part of the House legislation would make it easier for community college graduates to pursue four-year degrees.

"We want to move the number of college graduates who have a bachelor's degree (rather than only a two-year associate's degree) from 40 percent to 60 percent," Kanter said.

Part of making that happen is developing ways of tracking students as they move through community colleges, said Debbie Cochrane, program director for the Institute for College Access & Success, based in Berkeley, Calif.

Data on college-graduation rates applies specifically to four-year degree institutions, Cochrane said. But the American Graduation Initiative calls for tracking students who are not first-time, full-time freshmen.

"Then we'll have data that's accurate on how community college students are doing," Cochrane said.

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