Community Colleges: Where's Our $12 Billion? President Obama has called community colleges crucial to the nation's economic recovery, as jobs requiring associate degrees are expected to increase. But after empty promises of federal funding and ongoing state cuts, community colleges are struggling more than ever to deliver services.
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Community Colleges: Where's Our $12 Billion?

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Community Colleges: Where's Our $12 Billion?

Community Colleges: Where's Our $12 Billion?

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: community colleges. He says they can best adapt to the nation's economic realities and deliver the education and training Americans so desperately need. But this year, states are cutting their budgets to the bone.

And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the president hasn't delivered the federal aid to community colleges that he promised.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: To hear community college officials describe the impact of state funding cuts, it's never been this bad.

NOAH BROWN: Well, I don't know if the sky is falling, but the challenge that we face right now is quite severe.

SANCHEZ: Noah Brown is president of the American Association of Community College Trustees. According to his organization, 43 states have slashed funding for higher education and financial aid for needy students.

Ivy Tech Community College and its 23 campuses in Indiana, for example, took a $10 million hit last year. Funding from the state dropped from $3,000 per student to 2,300.

Ivy Tech president Tom Snyder says a majority of those students, 70 percent, are unemployed adults.

TOM SNYDER: We actually are educating the people that will help rebuild the economy.

SANCHEZ: To save money, Snyder says his institution now relies almost entirely on part-time, adjunct faculty and is offering more and more of its courses online. It's a bare-bones budget, although it's not nearly as bad as other places.

Across the country, many community colleges have capped enrollment, eliminated programs and courses, laid off faculty and raised tuition anywhere from 5 to 32 percent.

Noah Brown says community colleges are struggling at the worst possible time. Enrollment has skyrocketed because there are so many displaced workers seeking education and training.

BROWN: For example, I visited a college recently where they have increased the number of very early morning programs, as early as 5 a.m., and they're finding those courses full. I know of another institution that's running courses virtually 24/7, in the middle of the night, and they're finding a good number of students in those classes.

SANCHEZ: Layoffs, tuition increases, shoestring budgets - it's not what community college leaders envisioned. Back in 2009, President Obama praised community colleges for what he called their crucial role in the nation's economic recovery.

BARACK OBAMA: We know that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs or even keep those jobs here in America without the training offered by community colleges.

SANCHEZ: Mr. Obama was in Warren, Michigan, a town reeling from auto industry layoffs. There, he promised $12 billion to help stabilize funding for community colleges. They never saw any of that money. Why?

The president couldn't sell it to Congress, so lawmakers blocked most of it. The administration finally settled for a smaller amount - $2 billion - for a competitive grants program that Labor Secretary Hilda Solis unveiled just last week.

If community college leaders feel betrayed or upset that they didn't get more, Solis says, she's not hearing about it.

HILDA SOLIS: What I will tell you is that the federal government is not right now in the position where we can address all the shortages that are happening with respect to higher education.

SANCHEZ: In other words, the federal government can only offer a Band- Aid, leaving community colleges to fend for themselves with state funding cuts as far as the eye can see.

Like most community college presidents though, Tom Snyder of Ivy Tech is careful not to sound too critical of the Obama administration. After all, he says, $2 billion is better than nothing.

SNYDER: While it's disappointing we didn't get a larger amount, I think it is a sea change that community colleges now are on the national agenda, that you do speak of them in the same breath as you talk about the recovering workforce.

SANCHEZ: With deeper budget cuts looming in 2011, though, Snyder and most college officials say all the praise and attention in the world won't mean very much if community colleges have to shut their doors to the people who've come to depend on them.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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