Community College Organizer

What Obama wants to do for entry-level higher ed.

President Barack Obama

There’s a joke among snooty Boston-area high-school kids: If they don’t get good grades, they’ll end up at Cape Cod Community College, or “4 C’s by the Sea.” In suburban Washington, D.C., the punch line is Maryland’s Montgomery College, or “M.K.” for short. Kids in Houston use San Jacinto College, long known as “Harvard on the Highway.”

Community colleges don’t get a lot of respect. Except, as of this week, from President Obama. In a speech Tuesday in Warren, Mich., he proposed sinking nearly $12 billion into revamping the country’s community-college system. The plan would provide $9 billion in grant money to boost academic programs and raise graduation rates, plus another $2.5 billion to upgrade school facilities. It would also fund open-source online courses so that schools don’t have to build more classrooms to admit more students.

The point isn’t to turn Harvard on the Highway into actual Harvard. Even if the government gave all $12 billion to one community college, it wouldn’t be as rich as the World’s Greatest University. Nor is the purpose merely to improve the image of community colleges. And it’s not to encourage enrollment: With the economy tanking and tuitions at four-year colleges and universities exploding, community colleges are in the rare position of having to turn people away. “We’re bursting at the seams,” says Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, which saw a 25 percent increase in students over last year.

Rather, the plan is designed to correct decades of federal neglect. “Too often, community colleges are treated like an afterthought—if they’re thought of at all,” Obama said in his speech. Right now, somewhere between one-third and one-half of American undergrads are at community colleges, depending how you count. Yet community colleges receive only 20 percent of federal funding. “We’ve been so focused on the quality and reputation of our lead institutions” at the expense of community colleges, says Thomas Bailey of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. (That’s right: Not even the community college research center is based at a community college.) “The biggest issue in higher education has been affirmative action.” Racial preference isn’t a problem when you don’t turn anyone away.

That model is outdated, says Mellow: “We live in a knowledge economy, and we’ve set up education as if we’re an agrarian culture.” It used to be that you could educate the top 10 percent, he said, and the rest of the population would get unskilled jobs. But in a global economy, where even professions like cashier or truck driver require constant upgrades in technology and information, a high-school diploma is not always enough. That said, a pricey Ivy League degree may not be necessary, either. Community colleges fill that hole.

If the goal is to raise college graduation rates—Obama wants 5 million more grads by 2020—community colleges make an obvious target. They’re packed with people who want to be in college—they enrolled, after all—but often drop out. (Only 30 percent of students entering community college graduate in six years, compared with 58 percent of students at four-year schools.) Plus, they require little funding compared with other universities: Community college tuitions are typically in the $2,000-to-$5,000 range.

Another reason to spend on community colleges: They’re agile. If the university system is an ocean liner, community colleges are the speedboats of higher education. If they get more money and use it wisely, the thinking goes, they can produce results in a matter of years. After all, they’re designed to respond to the needs of the local community. For example, LaGuardia Community College recently introduced a program to train designers in New York City. When the fishing industry started struggling in Massachusetts, Cape Cod Community College turned its focus to nursing and other health-care-related jobs. When Connecticut introduced its first casino, one nearby community college started training croupiers. For an administration looking for shovel-ready projects, community colleges can provide a lot of shovels.

Will $12 billion really make a difference? “We’d hope so,” says Elizabeth Homan, a spokeswoman for Montgomery College. The school currently has $78 million in deferred maintenance and hasn’t hired any new faculty in two years. Obama’s plan might not cover the needs of all 1,100 community colleges in the country. But the national attention will probably help the schools raise more money on their own. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last year announced up to $500 million in grants to community colleges.

Educators also hope Obama’s new focus will change the way people think about post-secondary education. Giant research universities increase the amount of knowledge in the world. But community colleges increase the number of people who know it. And with jobs going overseas at ever-faster rates, America needs an educated, flexible work force ready to change jobs on short notice. That work force is more likely to emerge from community colleges than from, say, the Dartmouth English department.