While Democrats continue to spar and jostle on Capitol Hill over the $3.5 trillion federal rebuilding plan and others, there is a rush of excitement, positivity and possibility building among community college leaders.
Bearing scars of enrollment declines and the shrapnel of the COVID-19 pandemic, their institutions are on the cusp of a massive breakthrough from this “once-in-a-generation” investment package. Two years of free tuition for all is on the line, along with a number of other initiatives that support education for a diverse and often underserved pool of students. At a time when financial backing and workforce paths are so desperately needed, could this be the turning point for this higher ed sector?
“We are anxiously awaiting the outcome,” said Dr. Martha Parham, Senior Vice President of Public Relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “We are really excited about the investment in community colleges as an engine for economic development and change. This is really a bellwether moment, to have this level of support at the federal level. To see actual funding and programs put in place at this scale, it’s really historic.”
There is, of course, the potential for the plan to be downsized, given the recent pushback by more moderate Democrat senators and swirling threats of a potential government shutdown. Because it has no Republican support, the entire pool of Democrats must agree on it, and both Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are said to be posturing for a lower “top line” number. On Thursday, Manchin said he would only consider a $1.5 trillion plan. Fifty senators will test its mettle and merits, and, if it works for them, Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the decisive vote in its favor. At stake are close to 2,500 pages worth of social programs that aim to boost the lower and middle classes, with more than $100 billion going to community colleges.
“We are always cautiously optimistic until these things are signed and enacted,” Parham said. “But it’s a phased program so that it’s not funded in perpetuity. It’s an investment in not just community colleges, but also in the nation’s middle class. We know that people put their money into things that they find important.”
What’s on the line
For two-year institutions, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The challenges they’ve faced over the past two years, both financially and in terms of enrollment, also have been felt by the non-traditional students they serve. Their average age is 28. Many are parents, including 15% who are single parents. They are highly diverse, and nearly 30% are first-generation. The passage of the plan is almost essential for both.
“Anything we can do to invest in support, systems, programs and services that help eliminate those barriers to their completion, we are excited about,” Parham says. “It’s not just the free community college, but the wraparound services, the other grants, the workforce development and internships, all of those programs and services that are really going to impact community colleges and students.”
If President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan remains intact, students not only would have two years of college paid for, but they would be able to receive Pell Grants and other aid too, offsetting the potential costs of housing or living expenses. The Pell Grant program is expected to get an $80 billion boost, too, and there is another $50 billion to increase partnerships among community colleges and employers. Together, the hope is that this infusion will be a linchpin to get both new students to sign on and those back into the system who have stopped out.
According to figures throughout the past year from the National Clearinghouse Student Research Center, two-year institutions were the hardest hit in terms of enrollment and retention by COVID-19.
“We lost a great number of students during the pandemic,” Parham says. “From the high in about 2008 or 2009 when we saw those incredible spikes in enrollment across the country, we have been declining enrollment about 1% each year. The pandemic really kind of laid bare some of the challenges our students have.
“If you’re a single parent and you’re trying to have your kid at home taking classes, and you’re trying to take classes and work from home, what’s going to be the priority there? I look at our first-generation college students that don’t come from that college-going culture who are trying to navigate what is at best a complicated process of applications, enrollment and testing. Broadband was certainly an issue for many students. It wasn’t just rural communities. It was downtown LA. It was New York. Food and housing insecurity was a major issue the past 18 months, and it was before that, too. So, there have been a lot of challenges but I think community colleges rose to the occasion, and 90% of our students stuck it out.”
The short-term outlook might not be rosy in terms of boosting student numbers, but there are high hopes that the federal investment will be a springboard long term for community colleges.
“We don’t know yet what enrollments are going to be,” Parham says. “Colleges are funded in large majority based upon their enrollment and that’s usually done in arrears. We don’t see that for a couple of years, depending on the funding cycle per state. Colleges that are already underfunded could see a 10% reduction based upon these lowered enrollments.”
States will have a big part to play if and when this bill passes.
“The way the legislation stands right now, [states] can opt in or not,” she says. “We certainly hope they do because it’s a great benefit to students.”
Their future, and perhaps the future of many industries that want to build a pipeline of healthcare, manufacturing and technology talent, depends on the investment.
“It’s not a secret that 42%, or 5 million students, at community colleges are taking career and technical education classes,” Parham says. “We’ve seen issues with supply chain logistics, we’ve seen issues with manufacturing because of the economic slowdown that happened because of the pandemic. A lot of these job skills that are needed to fill these jobs are happening at the community college level—first responders, nurses, firefighters, police officers, welders, plumbers, truck drivers. It really is a great way for students, local economies, and the national economy to get back to work. People are seeing community colleges for the absolutely amazing things they provide to their communities.”