Obama's $12B Plan Will Slow Community College Reform

Like a second-grader proud to have mastered big numbers, President Obama yesterday unveiled his latest ambition--a $12 billion, 10-year plan to make America competitive by producing "5 million more" community college graduates by 2020.

The country, including the millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans looking for a career boost, may like the sound of that. But we had better think very carefully about whether "5 million more" is really a worthy goal, much less one worth spending billions of dollars on--especially since Obama's plans are more likely to perpetuate the subpar community college status quo than to spur aggressive reform.

The nation's massive community college system--made up of 1,200 community colleges accounting for more than 45% of all undergraduate enrollment--is marked by some terrific institutions and broad pockets of mediocrity. The unevenness is no surprise. Over the last 50 years, many of the schools have been jury-rigged to accommodate the explosion of college enrollment.

The bulk of the money is targeted not to encouraging efforts to refashion or reform these institutions, but just to helping them process more bodies.

One might think an administration intent on building infrastructure to support 21st century adult learners would encourage a hard look at what is in place--rather than rushing to supersize it.

But Obama's team has already suggested such considerations are secondary. In a conference call on Monday, Martha Kanter, a life-long community college bureaucrat who now serves as Obama's undersecretary of education, said the administration is "very concerned about providing access and opportunity during this terrible fiscal climate."

That sounds remarkably like justification of the $110 billion in education stimulus, which has thus far served primarily to help states and districts forestall tough choices. Meanwhile, the bulk of the money is targeted not to encouraging efforts to refashion or reform these institutions, but just to helping them process more bodies.

Given that the feds now spend about $2 billion a year in direct support for community colleges, $12 billion over 10 years is a pretty serious bump. The administration says three-quarters of the new money will go to support a fund intended to boost completion rates--without bothering to question the value or quality of the credential. Another $2.5 billion of the new money will pay for renovations to community colleges, which administration officials have indicated are outdated, short on space and ill-equipped to handle modern technology.

The most disappointing thing about Obama's proposal is the bland confidence it expresses in community colleges' capacity to meet the challenge. There is no hint that the rickety architecture of these systems, much of it built half a century ago, may not be equipped to provide the optimal platform for 21st century job training.

These institutions maintain networks of campuses opened when the Internet was a science fiction conceit, when distance learning entailed mail correspondence and when private providers like the University of Phoenix were a curiosity. These are teaching institutions that prefer to pay a premium to hire Ph.D.s--a degree that signals research savvy, not teaching chops. Whereas providers like the University of Phoenix are cutting costs and culling talent by drawing part-time teachers from the ranks of working professionals, community colleges continue to covet the familiar credentials.

Instead of fresh thinking or "tough choices," the President seeks to use dollars as a convenient salve. Are community colleges up to the challenges they face? Are there much better, more innovative ways for New York or other states to support job training? These are critical questions that the President's ambitious, decade-long strategy doesn't address--meaning that the money is far less likely to prove a blueprint for transformation than a subsidy of the uninspiring status quo.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

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