SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
This week, President Obama announced a $12 billion plan to help the nation's struggling community colleges. It's the federal government's biggest effort to boost access to higher education since the original G.I. Bill after World War II.
NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez joins us now.
Thanks very much for being with us, Claudio.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Good to be here, Scott.
SIMON: And why has the president decided to focus on community colleges?
SANCHEZ: Very simply because community colleges are the one institution in higher education that the Obama certainly feels can adapt quickly to the nation's current needs. In his speech, for example, earlier this week at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, which is a town reeling from the auto industry layoffs, President Obama called community colleges the crucial - or the lynchpin, anyway, to the nation's economic recovery.
He said in the coming years jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. And he cited nursing, wind technology jobs, even though some economists and the government's own data seems to point that the vast majority of jobs in the next 10 years may require some kind of training, but not exactly college degrees.
Still, Mr. Obama's point is that the more education you have after high school these days, the better your chances of finding a good paying job as the economy recovers. His goal - which he often repeats - is that by 2020 he wants the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Right now it's 10th, behind countries like Canada, Japan, South Korea, Ireland, France.
SIMON: Now, what are some of the highlights of the president's plan?
SANCHEZ: Well, essentially it is focused on increasing the number of community college graduates, doubling it to maybe five million by the year 2020. He also obviously wants to increase enrollment in community colleges.
These days, every year about 6.5 million students enroll in community colleges, by the way, which is about half of the nation's undergraduate students. The problem is that community colleges are notorious for dropout rates.
No more than 40 percent of students graduate, even though another 300,000 or so get some kind of certification. So Mr. Obama says, look, we need to do something about that. And he also points to the fact that community colleges, once - if they get these kids out in time - or I shouldn't just say kids. We should also talk about the fact that many of these are adults.
Right now these colleges train 80 percent of the nation's police and firefighters, emergency medical technicians, over half of all nurses and health care workers. So a lot of this money is geared to, you know, making these schools work better.
SIMON: Now, as I understand it, the money for this program depends on another one of the president's higher education initiatives. And that's the one that would replace government-subsidized student loans that now go through a bank with loans directly from the federal government.
SANCHEZ: That's correct. Making its way through Congress is an Obama proposal that would scrap the existing Federal Student Loan Program, which pays, as you just pointed out, pays banks to lend students money for college. Starting a year from now, students would bypass private lenders and banks and borrow directly from the U.S. government.
The administration says this is a program that would essentially save $87 billion over the next 10 years, much of which would be put back into community colleges but also preschool programs for low-income kids, more financial aid for college students, and parents who are struggling to pay for college.
SIMON: And Claudio, how's all the money and attention? What effect is going to have on the way in which community colleges are perceived right now?
SANCHEZ: Well, this is really the watershed moment for community colleges, an institution that's been around since the Truman administration. Community colleges have been the Rodney Dangerfield of higher education. They've gotten no respect. Now the president of the U.S., no less, is saying here's the one institution in higher ed that can adapt and deliver what this nation needs in terms of training and education.
In his speech to the NAACP, for example, he talked about the fact that this is the gateway for mostly black, Latino, and other minority students, and that's true. So some say the administration's $12 billion plan over the next 10 years is going to help the nation's 1,200 community colleges, so much so that it is now being viewed as the equivalent of a moon shot in higher education.
SIMON: NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez, thanks so much.
SANCHEZ: You're welcome.
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