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Inside the American Graduation Initiative

Oct 13, 2009

In February, President Barack Obama called for the U.S. to lead the world in college degrees earned over the next 10 years. Five months later, the president proposed spending $12 billion over the next decade to improve programs, courses and facilities at community colleges so that they can produce an additional 5 million graduates by 2020. The Obama administration also outlined its plan to teach Americans the skills they need to compete with workers from other nations. What are the specific measures being introduced?

At the start of his administration, President Barack Obama set a goal for the United States: By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

In July, Obama announced plans to invest an unprecedented $12 billion in reforming the nation's community colleges over the next decade, and called for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020, including students who earn certificates and associate degrees or who continue on to graduate from four-year colleges and universities.

The administration also outlined its measures to educate the next generation while securing a world-class workforce.

"Not since the passage of the original GI Bill and the work of President Truman's Commission on Higher Education — which helped double the number of community colleges and increase by seven fold enrollment in those colleges — have we taken such a historic step on behalf of community college in America," Obama said in announcing the new initiative.

The American Graduation Initiative will build upon the strengths of community colleges. In addition, the 10-year plan is intended to determine what works and what doesn't, modernize facilities, increase graduation rates, and expand and create new online learning opportunities.

In the coming years, it is estimated that jobs requiring at least an associate's degree are projected to grow twice as fast as those requiring no college experience. According to Funding and Access Issues in Public Higher Education: A Community College Perspective, a 2009 survey by the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center, enrollment at community colleges increased by 2.2 million students in the five years from 2000-2001 to 2005-2006.

Yet nearly half of students who enter community college intending to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year college fail to reach their goal within six years. In fact, a recent report from the Lumina Foundation states that degree-attainment rates are increasing in almost all industrialized countries in the world except the United States.

Meanwhile, state operating budget support for community colleges declined last year by 1 percent.

Because community colleges are often underfunded, "new competitive grants would enable community colleges and states to innovate and expand proven reforms" under Obama's plan.

"About 75 percent of the money the president hopes to spend on community colleges will go toward creating grant programs for schools and states to test promising programs, ones that improve student learning, student completion rates, and schools' abilities to track their students' academic progress," U.S. News & World Report's On Education blog says.

Congress increased Pell Grant funding in early 2007, and again in early 2009, to a current maximum of $5,350 per year. According to the University of Alabama's 2009 survey, the latest increase is large enough to cover likely tuition increases at states' community colleges. Now the Obama administration is working to make the policy permanent and ensure the Pell Grant continues to grow faster than inflation. The American Recovery and Relief Act (ARRA) of 2009 and the president's budget together call for nearly $200 billion in college scholarships and tax credits over the next decade.

Meanwhile, funding for community college facilities, including new construction and renovation, is a major need, according to the survey, respondents of which overwhelmingly said that federal aid is required for school infrastructure funding.

"Community colleges are being asked to do more with less, and, in many states, our community colleges are bursting at the seams and in desperate need of funds for new and renovated facilities. If you short-change the community colleges due to inadequate funding as compared to their mission, you are undermining the economic future of our nation," Frank Mensel, Senior Fellow at the University of Alabama, said in the Education Policy Center report.

In the university's 2007 survey, the four most pressing community college facility needs identified by state directors were all instruction-related: lab space, general classroom space, computer lab space and office space.

"All too often, community colleges are treated like the stepchild of the higher education system; they're an afterthought, if they're thought of at all. And that means schools are often years behind in the facilities they provide, which means, in a 21st-century economy, they're years behind in the education they can offer. That's a mistake and it's one that we'll help to correct," Obama said.

In the first major federally funded community college construction project since the 1960s, some $2.5 billion of the American Graduate Initiative will be earmarked to build and renovate classrooms, libraries and other community college facilities.

"It's probably not enough; it's probably nowhere near enough," Stephen Katsinas, the policy center's director, said of the $2.5 billion proposal. "But this is the first administration since Lyndon Johnson to see the need." (Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education)

While investing in brick-and-mortar academia, the president's plan is to also build a new virtual infrastructure to complement what community colleges offer. The American Graduation Initiative will expand students' access to online education through "the creation of a new online, open-source clearinghouse of courses so that community colleges across the country can offer more classes without building more classrooms." The administration hopes various federal agencies will collaborate to make courses freely available through one or more community college and the Department of Defense's distributed learning network.

The announcement of the American Graduation Initiative came a day after the Council of Economic Advisers released a report on the expected shift toward jobs that require workers with greater analytical and interactive skills, and summarized the attributes of a well-functioning education and training system designed for the jobs of the future.

According to the president, the plan will not add to the deficit because the investment will be paid by "ending the wasteful subsidies we currently provide to banks and private lenders for student loans, which will save tens of billions of dollars over the next 10 years."

"Instead of lining the pockets of special interests, it's time this money went towards the interests of higher education in America," Obama said.

While it's unclear whether the president's strategy will succeed, it begins where nationwide innovation so often does: in the classroom and laboratory, and in the networks that connect them to the broader economy. Education remains a key building block of worldwide competitiveness. This initiative, at least, is a down payment on future prosperity.


Fact Sheet on the American Graduation Initiative, July 14, 2009

Remarks by the President on the American Graduation Initiative, July 14, 2009

Investing in Education: The American Graduation Initiative, July 14, 2009

Christina Romer on Jobs of the Future, July 13, 2009

Funding and Access Issues in Public Higher Education: A Community College Perspective

University of Alabama's Education Policy Center, Sept. 24, 2009

A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education

Lumina Foundation for Education, February 2009

Measuring Up 2008: The National report on Higher Education

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Dec. 3, 2008

Obama's Ambitious Plan for Community Colleges Raises Hopes and Questions

by Marc Parry and Karin Fischer

The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 15, 2009

A Strategy for American Innovation: Driving Towards Sustainable Growth and Quality Jobs

The National Economic Council, Sept. 21, 2009

Remarks by the President on Innovation and Sustainable Growth, Sept. 21, 2009

Obama: Community Colleges Can Help Boost Ailing Economy

by Dan Lothian

CNN, July 14, 2009

Obama's Plan for Community Colleges

by Jessica Calefati

On Education (U.S. News & World Report), July 20, 2009