New Budget Targets Pell, Community Colleges

The Obama administration on Monday outlined a new federal education budget with an increase in the maximum Pell Grant and a major new $8 billion initiative to promote community college/business partnerships ading to high-paying jobs.

The president’s fiscal year 2013 plan would create a Community College to Career Fund designed to help 2 million Americans gain skills for quality jobs. Community colleges would work with businesses to design effective programs in health care, transportation, advanced manufacturing and other high-growth employment areas.

Among other projects, students could participate in registered apprenticeship programs or receive certified training that leads to job-ready skills. Low-income community college students also could obtain paid internships to gain solid job experience, said Hilda Solis, U.S. labor secretary.

The plan represents “an essential component of our long-term economic recovery,” Solis said. The program is designed to bring employers and two-year colleges together to help solve local or regional labor shortages. “It is unacceptable that so many companies have vacancies with an 8.4 percent unemployment rate,” Solis said.

The Labor Department and U.S. Department of Education would co-manage the initiative, which is winning praise from the community college sector.

“It’s a far-reaching proposal,” said David Baime, senior vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “It is an enhancement of what our colleges are already doing,” he told Diverse.

Baime also said paid internships are a “great idea” to help low-income community college students increase earnings and gain practical job experience.

For Pell Grants, the budget plan would increase the maximum grant by $85, to $5,635 next year. It also would contain guarantees to keep the grant at least at that level through the 2014-2015 school year, said Rich Williams, higher education advocate for US PIRG.

Reiterating a point made in the recent State of the Union address, the president also would freeze the interest rate on subsidized student loans at 3.4 percent, blocking a scheduled July 1 increase that would double that rate to 6.8 percent.

“Students and families need what the president offers in this budget, which is to keep interest rates low and provide more Pell Grant funding for students,” Williams said.

College work/study also would get an additional $150 million, which is the first step in the administration’s goal to double the number of work-study slots over five years.

Elsewhere, states could apply for $1 billion for a new Race to the Top competition aimed at higher education improvement. The initiative would follow similar Race to the Top efforts at the early childhood and K-12 levels designed to spur innovation. The administration says the new competition would promote college affordability and completion.

Overall, the president’s discretionary education budget proposes $69.8 billion next year, an increase of $1.7 billion. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the increases are part of a series of “unprecedented investments” in education to help grow the economy and produce educated, high-skilled workers.

The Education Department’s chief programs for minority-serving institutions would receive level funding next year, including $313 million for historically Black colleges, $59 million for historically Black graduate institutions and $24 million for predominantly Black institutions. The budget also contains $100 million for Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), $20 million for HSI graduate and professional programs and $100 million for HSI science, technology, engineering and math programs.

However, minority-serving colleges could gain funds from two new higher education proposals. The White House is seeking $30 million in first-time funding for Hawkins Centers of Excellence, which would focus on expanding teacher education programs at minority-serving colleges and universities.

MSIs also could get up to $20 million to promote innovative approaches to college persistence and completion. That provision is part of a new $55 million First in the World competition encouraging innovation in higher education.

Funding for federal TRIO and GEAR UP programs would remain unchanged at $840 million and $302 million, respectively, under the budget plan for next year. Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education that works with college access programs, said he was “extremely disappointed” with the lack of an increase at a time when grantees face increased costs.

The president’s plan now goes to Congress, which will hold hearings and develop spending bills for the 2013 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.