Though the details of a $12 billion federal funding plan for community colleges have yet to be finalized, let alone approved, Barbara Risser is thrilled with the gesture.
The president of Finger Lakes Community College said with economic conditions driving more students to seek affordable higher education and workers to learn new job skills, interest in community colleges is building. The federal funding, and the attention surrounding President Barack Obama’s July announcement of it, has helped community colleges reach a tipping point.
"This brings the work of community colleges more out in the open," Risser said. "Students are increasingly looking at community colleges as their No. 1 choice, and there is a lot of energy around community colleges right now."
The program is designed to increase the number of graduates by 5 million over the next 11 years. Legislation has yet to be drafted, but a plan released by the White House includes improving student retention, modernizing facilities and employing a challenge fund to build partnerships with businesses.
Other local community college leaders also saw the announcement as a long-overdue boost for these two-year schools, even if they do have some concerns about specifics of the program.
Anne Kress, Monroe Community College president, said the announcement was on par with other historic investments in higher education such as the Montgomery GI Bill and the founding of land grant universities.
"This recognizes the role community colleges are playing for the work force in the 21st century," Kress said. "Over half of all students in higher education have been at community colleges at some point. The sector is large and justifies this level of involvement."
At MCC, Kress predicts this coming year will bring a 9 percent to 10 percent increase in enrollment, above the record numbers established last school year. A large number of these students are already in the work force and are seeking new job skills and training. She believes the funding will help establish programs that better cater to the busy schedules of these students.
"We have a lot of folks coming back to get degrees or training and have their hours full, and what makes this plan really different is the whole slate of programs being offered to help," Kress said.
Part of the proposed plan would include the creation of an online skills laboratory where the U.S. departments of Defense, Education and Labor would provide free online courses. The laboratory would target working adults and rural students.
Kress recalled her work as a professor in the early days of online courses when they were conducted by e-mail. Now students expect course management systems that include real-time chat, multimedia and message boards, she said.
"The next level will be much more interactive, and the expectations for people in an online environment have really grown," Kress said. "The reality of online learning programs and work force development programs is they’re expensive to support and build. To get help to build a level robust enough to provide the quality of training necessary is important."
The news has been touted by many in higher education and the media as being equal parts education investment and business development. Stuart Steiner, president of Genesee Community College, agrees with the sentiment.
"Community colleges have historically been heavily involved in training and re-training of the work force, and when appropriate funding levels are given, colleges across the country do a terrific job of boosting up their efforts," Steiner said. "I think one of the reasons (Obama) is focused on community colleges is he recognized that they are able to move faster than most educational institutions in bringing new programs and short- and long-term training."
In its early phases, the proposal is being met with some concern over how the programs will be administered and what expectations will be placed on community colleges. And because many details still need to be added, questions have arisen about what strings may be attached.
Risser agreed there are questions surrounding the program and pointed specifically to the proposal for online courses, which are said to be offered at no cost. It is the precise definition of "no cost" that eludes her.
"I’m not sure if that meant no cost to the colleges, so the programs would be developed by experts and work like shareware where the colleges could take them and run with it," Risser said. "Some people think it means the courses are free for students, and if they are free I don’t see how that would be viable."
She is also unclear about funding for facilities upgrades. Risser said she is concerned that if the final language says the funding supplants, rather than supplements, state funds, it could endanger the local match for community colleges by counties.
The amount of money, while staggering and still a significant investment, will look much smaller when distributed among the nation’s more than 1,100 community colleges, Steiner said. He also said it would take a long legislative process before individual schools knew how much they would have access to, during which time the amount is likely to change somewhat.
Steiner has another concern about how graduation rates could be measured for benchmarking purposes. If colleges are required to graduate a certain percentage of students in order to receive funding, Steiner said he hopes there could be some leeway in what is considered "graduating" a student.
For example, many students leave community colleges a few credits short of graduating to transfer to four-year colleges, he said. While these students are not technically graduates, they are considered successes for community colleges, Steiner said.
"Focusing on improving graduation rates is a wonderful and appropriate kind of thing, but it gets down into the detail of how you measure these things," he said. "There’s so many dynamics involved, and if they do put graduation rates in as one of the goals, they need to find a way to determine how they will measure success or failure in that area."
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