New Talk of D.C. Community College

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 7, 2008

A group of District leaders is calling for the creation of a community college to provide job training for city residents.

It's not a new idea. Various commissions have recommended it over the past few decades, but there has never been the political will -- or money -- to make it happen. This time, in an effort led by the Brookings Institution, the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a group of civic leaders hope the timing might be right.

Officials at the city's public college, the University of the District of Columbia, say they hope to play a major role. "It's one of our top priorities now," said James W. Dyke Jr., the UDC board chairman.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), council members Carol Schwartz (D-At Large) and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), the acting president of UDC and other leaders met yesterday to talk about possibilities, including starting a free-standing community college, creating one within UDC or building a network that ties together educational resources at various schools.

A report by the Brookings Institution explored those ideas and endorsed of the idea of a separate school but did not include cost estimates.

According to the report, the economics are stark: Despite a strong regional economy, the District's unemployment rate is higher than the national average, and the poverty rate of nearly 20 percent is the highest it has been in a decade.

Yet very few of those with college degrees are poor: 5 percent, according to the report. Just 14 percent of those with some college or a two-year degree are poor. Nearly a third of the jobs in the area require more than a high school diploma but not a full bachelor's degree, including radiology technicians, paralegals and other professions that are in demand.

UDC, an open-enrollment institution, offers classes at multiple levels, including those that lead to an associate's degree. The report argues that the university, long underfunded, has favored the four-year program, not leaving enough options for students who don't have time for or interest in a bachelor's degree.

The D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program provides money for city residents toward the cost of in-state tuition rates at public institutions; in 2004-05, about 470 students used those grants to go to nearby community colleges. A new community college could pull even more students from UDC.

But Dyke said that separating the community college aspect of the school could strengthen its four-year program. UDC is moving quickly to build up its community-college-type offerings, he said, including job training. The school wants to have a separate faculty and a vice president who would, in effect, lead the community college.

Gray, who strongly endorsed the idea, said the group would do a feasibility study soon. "How much will it cost? Twenty, 30, $40 million? And if so, where do we get the resources to make this happen?" he said.

Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said the business community would support a school if members would see a return on their investment: workers trained in marketable skills. She said there are federal dollars available for workforce training and foundations that might chip in as well.

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