This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 28, 2010 - With health care stuck in neutral, political gridlock in the Senate, millions still out of work and two wars grinding on, President Barack Obama's spotlight on schools in the State of the Union address was a welcome bright spot for local educators.
"It was very encouraging to have community colleges referred to so positively in the State of the Union speech," said John M. McGuire, president of St. Charles Community College.
"We've been a real resource for the nation, and one of America's great inventions. People attend college very differently from the way they used to. When most people think of college, they think of Notre Dame and football on a Saturday afternoon. That's a nice way to think of it, but that's not how many people go to college."
Obama won applause -- sometimes even from both sides of the aisle -- when he declared his desire to shore up support for higher education in general and community colleges in particular, stating:
"No one should go broke because they chose to go to college."
Because "a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job," the president urged an end to taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans, saying that money should instead go to increased Pell grants and a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college.
He also said graduates should not have to pay any more than 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt should be forgiven after 20 years, or 10 years if they choose to enter public service.
In tough economic times, enrollment at community colleges usually increases, as people either don't have jobs or feel they need to sharpen their skills to keep their jobs or find a better one.
That trend has been true locally. McGuire said enrollment in St. Charles was up 8.5 percent in the fall and should increase a similar amount in the new semester. At Lewis and Clark Community College in Madison County, Kent Scheffel, vice president of enrollment services, expects a 5-10 percent boost in the number of students this spring, while enrollment at Jefferson College in Hillsboro is up 17 percent this spring, according to President Raymond Cumminskey.
"We're seeing quite a surge in our technology program as well as our general education core," Cumminskey said. "A lot of folks are turning to us to get what they need to live a better life."
He welcomed the Obama proposals that would relieve some of the financial pressures on students at community colleges.
They "will be attractive to students, particularly those who want to go into public service fields like education, where the pay isn't going to be extremely high," Cumminskey said. "Many of our students come to us because we are very affordable, but they still have to find a way to make ends meet."
Scheffel echoed the president's view that community colleges are a good place for students who are either starting in higher education or looking for the kinds of skills they need to keep them employable.
"He's been very supportive of the community college mission," Scheffel said. "I feel that community colleges could help strengthen the workforce through training and providing workers with the background that would help them remain employed and create new opportunities for them."
Obama is not the only member of the administration who is a community college booster. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, taught for many years in a community college and earned her doctorate with a dissertation focusing on how to retain students in community colleges.
That kind of support, McGuire said -- along with a $12 billion graduation initiative proposed by the White House last summer -- help reinforce the message that "community colleges are certainly the best bargain in higher education, not only for students but for the public as well."
Community colleges weren't the only segment of education singled out by the president Wednesday night. He also highlighted his continued effort to have schools compete for federal funds by submitting proposals for Race to the Top grants. Both Missouri and Illinois are seeking the money, with the first grants to be announced in April.
Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have emphasized repeatedly that the competition is designed to recognize schools that are doing things right.
"Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success," Obama said in his speech to Congress and the nation.
"Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city. In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education."
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Duncan told reporters on a conference call that a proposed 6 percent increase in federal spending on schools -- at a time when most other spending will be flat -- is a "clear reflection of the president's deep, deep commitment to education."
While saving most details for the formal release of the administration's budget proposal on Monday, Duncan did say that the White House would be seeking an additional $3 billion for schools, including $1.3 billion to extend the Race to the Top program into next year.
Calling education "the civil rights issue of our generation," he hailed the increase as a "huge commitment at a time that the economy is very tough."
Duncan also defended the principle that the money should go to schools that have already shown leadership in reform, saying:
"More of the same is just going to get more of the same results."
Missouri’s commissioner for elementary and secondary education, Chris Nicastro, understands the emphasis on competition and on rewarding states and schools that have been leaders in education reform. She noted that some federal stimulus money has gone into programs designed to help schools with below-average resources.
But she hopes that the winners in contests like Race to the Top don’t end up leaving other schools even further behind.
“I think that the intent is to not only support efforts for those states that are somewhat down the road in terms of pursuing reform efforts but also to provide models that all other states can emulate and follow,” she said.
“The attempt is really to support best practices. We certainly want to make sure all kids have a high-quality education, and I have to believe that the federal government wants that, too.”