Obama: GOP plan would hurt community colleges

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

President Obama applauded the nation's community colleges Tuesday as "the unsung heroes of America's education system" but warned that the Republican economic plan would imperil their mission and put the nation at a competitive disadvantage against other nations.

Obama spoke at the first White House Summit on Community Colleges, a rare moment in the national spotlight for an oft-neglected sector of higher education. The president said he is counting on two-year colleges to generate 5 million additional degrees and certificates in 10 years toward a national goal of regaining the world lead in college completion.

For many participants, the event marked perhaps the finest hour in the 109-year history of "junior" colleges.

"I think this will get us into the national conversation in a much more visible way," said Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George's Community College.

Obama framed the fate of community colleges as a matter of global economic competition. Speaking weeks before crucial midterm elections, Obama said the signature Republican Pledge to America would cut education funding by one-fifth to fund tax relief for the wealthy, at a time when other nations are padding their investments.

"Think about it: China is not slashing education by 20 percent right now," he said. He likened the GOP proposal to "unilaterally disarming our troops right as they head to the front lines."

Republican leaders responded that their pledge rolls back nonsecurity discretionary spending to 2008 levels but does not require cuts to any particular program. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), chairman of the pledge, said in a statement his party seeks to undo a "reckless spending spree" by the Obama administration.

Community colleges represent the largest and most affordable sector of higher education. Obama said he expects them to take a lead role in his American Graduation Initiative. America has fallen from first to ninth in a single decade, he said, in its share of young people holding college degrees.

"As far as I'm concerned, America doesn't play for second place," he said, "and it certainly doesn't play for ninth."

Legislation signed by the president in March provided $2 billion to community colleges over four years to boost sagging completion rates and prepare students for jobs. Still, some in the field viewed the summit as a consolation prize because earlier proposals had put the funding at $12 billion.

Jill Biden, the vice president's wife and an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, led the session and oversaw an audience of about 150 college presidents, faculty, students and VIPs. It amounted to a star-powered but otherwise ordinary afternoon conference, with break-out sessions on raising the 22 percent completion rate in two-year colleges and simplifying the sometimes bewildering process of transfer to four-year institutions.

"Our challenge is not just to get students into college, but to keep them there," Biden said, in the opening session.

One goal of the summit was to unite scattershot programs into a national effort to raise completion rates, train students for in-demand jobs and ease transfer to four-year colleges.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $35 million competitive grant program to improve completion rates. (Melinda Gates is on The Washington Post Co. board of directors.) The Aspen Institute and several partners announced a $1 million annual Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Another new program, Skills for America's Future, links community colleges to major employers, including the Gap and McDonald's.

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