Community College Summit Centers on Student Aid

WASHINGTON – At their annual legislative meeting, the 2010 Community College National Legislative Summit, community college trustees and administrators from around the country attended briefings on Capitol Hill and met with members of Congress to lobby on behalf of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), a bill that will pump billions of dollars to bolster student aid among other provisions.

“Your presence on Capitol Hill and timing are extraordinarily important and is already making a difference,” said Hal Plotkin, senior policy adviser to the undersecretary of the Department of Education, who warned that, without SAFRA, Pell grants will fall from their current maximum of $5,500 per student just over $2,000 by 2011. “These funds are necessary for students who need and rely on Pell Grants,” Plotkin said.

With its promise of $12 billion in competitive federal grants, President Barack Obama’s American Graduation Initiative (AGI) is poised to become the mechanism that will return the U.S. as the world’s leader in degree completion. The Obama administration has targeted community colleges as a central component of its educational agenda.

At a Friday summit town hall meeting, members of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) listened to representatives from the departments of Labor and Education outline administration policy proposals.

“If you look at the fiscal situation, it’s very clear the only way the U.S. can regain its economic momentum” is to develop the undeveloped human capital by “enabling more citizens to maximize their potential,” Plotkin said during the event. “There is only one place that can happen and that is in community colleges.”

Part of reaching that goal, panelists said, is bringing back students who dropped out or were pushed out of the system either in high school or college. On top of current annual degree-production rates, the higher education system would need to produce 5 million more degrees in the next decade.

“There are about 18 million American adults that have a ninth grade education and that don’t have a high school degree,” said Gerri Fiala, deputy assistant secretary of employment and training in the Department of Labor. “That is low hanging fruit. We can just reconnect them as part of that 5 million graduate goal.”

Fiala said the labor market and higher education must link occupational training with postsecondary education to streamline adult education and certify skilled workers.

“We need to think about bringing adults and nontraditional students into the mix if we are going to meet our goal,” said Ami Laitinen, a policy adviser of the Department of Education. “There are 93 million adult Americans out there who do not have the basic literacy skills to compete. The days for jobs that don’t require a high level of skill are over.”

Both departments vowed to work together to accelerate degree programs for adults and capitalize on partnerships that will enhance a student’s progression to employment.