Community colleges, once the stepchildren of higher education, have become objects of loving attention by the Obama administration, which is looking for ways to shower them with federal dollars. On July 14 President Obama announced a proposal to invest $12 billion in federal spending for community colleges so they could help laid-off workers and others hit by the current recession learn "the skills they need to fill the jobs of the future." Earlier, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had announced a $7 million federal grant competition "to establish innovative and sustainable community college programs that prepare displaced workers for second careers." The aim of both programs is to boost the number of Americans earning degrees and certificates from community colleges by up to 5 million over the next decade, according to Obama.
That undoubtedly sounds like good news to the nation's 1,045 community colleges (according to Education Department figures), which are experiencing record enrollments this fall as strapped families look around for cheaper alternatives for the first two years of college (most community colleges offer a two-year associate degree in academic subjects). Annual tuition at private four-year institutions is typically about $25,000, and in-state tuition at public four-year schools is in the $8,000 range. Community colleges typically charge a bargain-basement $2,500 a year. Add to that the lure of small classes (fewer than 35 students on average), open-enrollment policies that offer second chances to young people who goofed off in high school, and wide arrays of vocational and career-preparation programs. George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, points out that two-year schools "prepare most of the nation's registered nurses, police officer, paramedics, firefighters, and registered nurses."