$8b community college boost

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February 13, 2012, 7:24 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe: Boston) - As President Obama rolled out a $3.8 trillion budget plan for 2013 on Monday, one of his signature initiatives was an $8 billion Labor Department/Education Department program to subsidize community colleges training 2 million people for jobs.

"There are millions of jobs open right now, and there are millions of people unemployed. The question is how we match up workers to those jobs,'' the president said in an announcement event at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va. "We're making a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills they need to get a job right now, or start their own business -- right now.''

Obama's move came as, from Washington to Boston and all around the nation, community colleges are getting a lot more attention than they have in years, in part because between the high cost of regular college and elevated unemployment since the Great Recession began in 2007, community-college enrollements are up 10 percent from a decade ago, to over 6 million nationwide.

Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick, for example, has been making a big push to get two-year schools more coordinated around a common set of initiatives on job preparation. Obama's $8 billion initiative puts more money behind the effort, with a "pay for performance" requirement mandating that federal aid to community colleges be tied to how successful their programs are in actually placing students in jobs, especially students facing the biggest hurdles because of poverty or sub-adequate high-school education.

One leading example of a school that says it could put these funds to use immediately is Roxbury Community College in Boston, which has been laying the groundwork for a $16 million Life Sciences Institute, overhauling areas of two buildings on the campus with improved laboratories and education space.

"We can really tie in very well with what the president intends to do with putting those kinds of dollars to work,'' RCC president Dr. Terrence Gomes said in an interview Monday after the president's address. "I think this is a great fit."

Currently, about 400 of RCC's 2,500 students are in classes and programs leading towards jobs in the life-sciences sector that is booming in Boston, Cambridge, and eastern Massachusetts. Tala Khudairi, RCC dean of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, said she'd love to have the funding and facilities to encourage hundreds more students to get on the pathway to a job in the promising industry sector.

"We have a lot of state-of-the-art equipment right now, but we'd like to expand on that, so we can train and educate more students to fulfill the workforce need,'' Khudairi said, adding that it can cost $300 to $400 per student per class just for the materials needed for a top-notch life-sciences class. RCC offers classes and programs for students in biological sciences, biotech, laboratory animal care, environmental science, and other related fields.

While the president was talking about a big infusion of cash to community colleges, at the same time Monday he made what sounded to many like a threat to impose some kind of price controls at public and private colleges and universities.

"We're putting colleges and universities on notice: You can't just keep on raising tuition and expect us to keep on coming up with more and more money,'' Obama said. "Tuition inflation has actually gone up more than health care. Thats hard to do … What we're saying to states, colleges and universities is, if you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Because higher education cannot be a luxury. It is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford. That's part of American promise in the 21st century.''

For New England, with its scores of colleges and universities, including some of the nation's most prestigious and expensive, a federal cutback on research aid and student aid over tuition levels could be devastating.

But sector leaders like Rich Doherty, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, say they hope Congress and the administration will recognize that while "list-price" tuition is up, financial aid is way up, and so the real average net cost of non-public college education - what average families are actually paying after subtracting financial aid -- has dropped 4 percent, adjusted for inflation, in the last five years.

"I think it's important to recognize that the private colleges have been working very hard to hold down the cost of college,'' Doherty said, adding that his member organizations want to work with, not fight with, the government to keep tuition and fees affordable. "We all need to work together to hold down costs,'' Doherty said.

With videographer John J. Hammann

Tags: President Obama, federal budget, community colleges
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