A report released in May and co-authored by UW-Madison professors Sara Goldrick-Rab and Douglas Harris argued that community colleges are in need of significant government investment if the United States is to help more of its people get a formal education and better compete with others from around the globe for the best jobs.
"Over the last two centuries, the United States created an advantage over other countries by helping our citizens attain formal education, generating an able workforce and technological advancement," states the report, which was also co-written by Christopher Mazzeo of the Consortium on Chicago School Research and Gregory Kienzl of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. "Yet U.S. higher educational attainment, long considered a ladder to economic and social success, has stalled and now reinforces inequalities between rich and poor America."
The paper then exhorts Congress and the incoming administration of President Barack Obama "to transform our community colleges into engines of opportunity and prosperity by targeting new investments to those colleges that succeed in helping their students succeed."
At the time, the 37-page report -- titled "Transforming America's Community Colleges: A Federal Policy Proposal to Expand Opportunity and Promote Economic Prosperity" and released by the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C. -- garnered no mainstream media attention.
But some very influential people were taking note.
Goldrick-Rab, the lead author of the document, said Cecilia Rouse of President Obama's Council for Economic Advisors participated in a panel discussion about the report in May, and it wasn't long before people in Washington were showing interest in the paper.
And on July 14, Obama unveiled the American Graduation Initiative, a 10-year, $12 billion plan that mirrors much of the Brookings report in calling for a significant increase in investment in community colleges.
"I have to say it's probably the only thing I've ever written that so many people thought was such a good idea," said Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology. "The president did more than I ever thought he would. He really took the bull by the horns here and put community colleges front and center in the higher education agenda."
Obama hopes this investment will translate into five million more community college graduates over the next decade -- a goal that would require nearly doubling graduation rates at most of these schools.
Of the $12 billion Obama hopes to direct to community colleges, $9 billion would go toward a pair of new grant programs that challenge schools both to find innovative ways to connect student learning to real-world job options and to develop new methods for helping more students complete degree programs. These grants are to be tied to a yet-to-be-determined performance measurement system, which will require colleges to track and report results.
"Tying federal money to results in higher education is earth-shattering and presents some really interesting challenges," said Noel Radomski, director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, a higher education think tank based on the UW-Madison campus.
Radomski, who is also a member of Madison Area Technical College's District Board, said "community colleges don't have the infrastructure to prove effectiveness. So what this means, and I'm being self-interested a little bit, is that research universities have a prime opportunity to collaborate with the community colleges. This is very exciting."
Under Obama's plan, another $500 million would be dedicated to developing more online course options, while the remaining $2.5 billion would be used as a catalyst to $10 billion in community college facility investments. That fund could be used to pay the interest on bonds or other debt, or to seed capital campaigns.
Obama's plan is nothing more than a proposal at this point, and the community college provisions were included in more far-reaching higher education legislation about student lending and financial aid policy introduced on July 15. Administration officials said they plan to fund the community college initiative with savings that result from the proposed changes in the federal student loan program.
Goldrick-Rab is hopeful Obama's vision won't change significantly as it moves through the legislative process.
"Remember, every Congressman has a community college in their district," said Goldrick-Rab. "So I would hope this will have broad appeal. I don't see it as being hugely controversial."
Nationally, of the 18.7 million graduate and undergraduate college students, a little more than a third (about 6.7 million) attend two-year schools. But less than a third of the students at two-year schools earn at least an associate's degree in three years or less. That low figure was the impetus behind the president's new initiatives to increase the effectiveness of community colleges, raise graduation rates, improve facilities and enhance online learning options.
"This set of initiatives lines up perfectly with our strategic direction," said Ed Clarke, Madison Area Technical College's director of grants and special projects.
In fact, MATC is unusually well positioned to cash in on Obama's proposal.
This past spring, MATC approved its long-range facilities master plan, a conceptual guide for the future development of facilities to support the college's recently updated academic plan.
The long-range report, which looks at the next 10 to 15 years, includes three top priorities: a new facility on the Truax Campus to house MATC's expanding health education programs; a place to permanently house fire and protective services programs; and a center that would house tutoring services, advisers, career counselors and registration systems. The master plan also suggests that MATC consider building a new campus on the southwest side of Madison.
MATC's last major growth spurt came more than two decades ago when, after much wrangling about location, the $46.9 million Truax facility opened in 1986 on Madison's north side. The campus is nearly triple the size of the downtown campus, which had previously been the hub of MATC. Completing everything in MATC's current long-range plan likely would cost more than $300 million.
Obama's proposal is aimed at retraining workers who have lost their jobs in the recession, and MATC has already positioned itself as the area's go-to place for job training and retraining due to its close relationship with the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin.
As it has for many community colleges, the recession has led to increased enrollment at MATC. Enrollment among students seeking degrees jumped 6 percent in spring 2009 compared to the same semester in 2008, and this fall, officials said they are expecting a jump in enrollment of more than 16 percent compared to 2008.
"I think the president has his eye on this recession, and he is really focused on trying to deal with the layoffs that are happening every single day," Clarke said. "The jobs that people are losing aren't going to be there when the recession is over, so it's a question of retooling and revamping, and I think that's where the community colleges come in. I think we're able to be close to employers, figure out what those new jobs are and begin retraining."