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New Talk of D.C. Community College
Leaders Say Timing Might Be Right for Oft-Discussed Idea

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.

Alice M. Rivlin of the Brookings Institution said that although various panels have proposed a separate community college in the past, she thinks this time could be different, because the city is better off financially than it has been and because Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has emphasized improving education in the District.

Fenty was not specific in his response to a question about whether he supports a community college proposal.

"Creating a world-class education system in the District of Columbia does not end at high school," he said in a statement. "We will continue to look for and support education initiatives that benefit the residents such as increased vocational education and greater opportunities for job training."

Walter Smith of D.C. Appleseed said a community college would bring tangible benefits to the city, including increased income tax revenue -- just a third of the city's jobs are held by District residents -- and lower costs in social services as people find jobs.

But some questioned whether the city should embark on an expensive new proposition rather than improving what is already in place.

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity (Washington) University, which educates many District residents, including many working adults and people seeking job training, said, "UDC in many ways is not funded adequately to do what it's supposed to do. I don't know why we would take more money away from UDC to do something else when this kind of education is exactly what the state institution is supposed to be doing."

Wilmer Johnson, a UDC professor, was not impressed by a suggestion to use one of the elementary or high schools the city is closing as a home for the community college. "If you don't make it first-class, they won't come."

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