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249
By JonMarcus
Washington, D.C.
Y
ou’ll have to forgive them if the community college
students, faculty and presidents looked star struck,
squinting in the glare of the bright lights of the television
news crews as Marine guards crisply showed them to their
seats.
Dressed in their best, these 122 hand-picked representatives
of higher education’s most maligned, least influential sector
were, after all, being ushered to theWhite House East Room,
guests of the wife of the vice president of the United States, the
chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, three cabinet secretaries,
one congressman, the billionaire who co-chairs the nation’s
wealthiest foundation—and the leader of the free world.
As they waited restively beneath the crystal chandeliers,
surrounded by gold draperies, and scrutinized by Gilbert
Stuart’s portrait of GeorgeWashington, they knew this was
the most attention given to their colleges by any president
since 1947, when a commission appointed by Harry Truman
recommended so big an expansion that there would be a
community college campus within easy driving distance of
every American.
Barack Obama himself soon was telling them, after he
bounded from a side door to the presidential podium, that they
were “the unsung heroes of America’s education system.”
Heady stuff. But the community college leaders at this
first-everWhite House Summit on Community Colleges also
knew that grand plans for $12
billion to help them increase
their abysmal graduation
rates had been sacrificed
for the sake of passing
healthcare reform, even then
being gleefully disparaged
by Republican candidates
in the midterm elections as
“Obamacare.”They knew
that this raised questions
about the president’s
goal—called the American
Graduation Initiative—of
boosting the nation from
tenth place in the world to first by 2020 in the proportion of
young adults with university degrees.They knew that deep
public and congressional antipathy toward federal government
spending would certainly slow the momentumof impressive
gains that had beenmade in postsecondary education
(Obamacation?) during the administration’s first two years.
They knew that along with what billions had been approved
for higher education were coming unrelenting calls for more
accountability, that new rules meant to curb abuses in the fast-
December 2010
The Presidential Treatment
The Obama administration makes big advances, faces tough challenges, in higher education policy
growing for-profit higher
education sector were
threatening to backfire
on traditional nonprofit
colleges. And they knew
that massive increases in
federal financial aid were
already being sucked
up by spiraling tuition
charged by universities
still reeling from
state budget cuts and
endowment losses.
For all the value
of the attention they
were getting, for all
theymay have relished
the unprecedented
presidential praise, for
all the glamour of a
summit at theWhite
House, everyone in the
East Roomknew that
it was more or less a
consolation prize.
“The administration
came out of the gate
strong with the 2020
goal, and then the wind went out of their sails when they traded
the American Graduation Initiative for healthcare,” said one
Washington insider. “It feels like ever since then they’ve been
grabbing on to whatever they can to show they’re really serious
about higher education.”
The poorer prospects for progress in the next two years
seemdimmer still because of the inevitable comparison with
the enormous strides made so quickly in the previous two.
Obama immediately elevated higher education to near the
top of a crowded agenda—and spoke often and unusually
personally about the value of his own further education and his
wife’s, which was less of a birthright than it had been for many
of his predecessors. Huge amounts of money were appropriated
for higher education, goals were set for raising graduation
rates, and regulations were fine-tooled to protect students and
encourage quality.
First came $100 billion in stimulus money to states for
education, $23 billion of which went to higher education ($16.5
billion for additional financial aid and $6.6 billion to plug holes
left by budget cuts).
The lower-than-low standing of the bonus-happy
big financial institutions that helped force the need for
that stimulus spending in the first place also helped the
President Barack Obama prepares to deliver remarks to
community college leaders at the recent White House
Summit on Community Colleges.
Pete Souza for the White House
Impressive gains
have been made
in postsecondary
education during
the Obama
administration’s
first two years.