Minnesota higher education officials are applauding a proposal by President Obama to spend $12 billion on the nation's community colleges over the next 10 years.
The plan would fund grants to help students pay for tuition, boost funding for online classes and help community colleges build new classrooms.
President Obama unveiled his proposal at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. The Detroit suburb served as a fitting backdrop. At 14 percent, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
Laid-off workers in Michigan have flocked to community colleges, just as they have across the country, in search of new job skills and retraining.
Obama told a crowd that helping many more people get their degrees, especially at two-year community colleges, is key to the nation emerging from its recession.
"Community colleges are an essential part of our recovery in the present, and our prosperity in the future," Obama said.
The president's 10-year plan breaks down like this:
- $9 billion would go to develop new programs and grants to help students pay tuition.
- $500 million would go to boost online learning.
- $2.5 billion would be used to leverage $10 billion in loans to renovate old classrooms and build new community college facilities.
The proposal is an exciting prospect to higher education officials like Linda Baer, the senior vice chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System.
"It's the absolute shot in the arm that our higher education environment needs today," said Baer. "Our community colleges are very responsive to the needs of the workforce, but we've all been strapped with budgetary issues."
Although Baer doesn't know how much money Minnesota schools might get under the proposal, she says the money would be welcome at MnSCU's 25 community and technical colleges.
"To assist them in expanding programming, expanding partnerships with business and industry, so that we can get a jump start on the most relevant emerging curricular needs for this new economy when it comes out the other side of this recession," said Baer. "The facilities are in need of upgrading, our laboratories always need more investment as well as technology."
The community college proposal puts a sharp focus on preparing students for what President Obama calls "the jobs of the future."
Richard Shrubb, president of Minnesota West Community and Technical College, says his school is doing just that. The college has a two-year program that trains students to build and maintain wind turbines.
"I very much believe that two-year technical education is going to be the backbone of our recovery and our economic recuperation, because those are the jobs that are stable," he said.
Shrubb says he'd use any extra funding from the federal government to increase salaries for instructors, who he has to lure away from higher-paying industry positions. And Shrubb says his school could use new equipment to train students on wind turbine technology.
Normandale Community College student Tyler Smith says he welcomes any extra funding that might make its way to students. Smith is also president of the Minnesota State College Student Association.
"I am interested to see where this goes. I think it could be very beneficial for students," said Smith. "I'm excited to see the grant programs, and I'm excited to see more money put into community colleges."
But Smith is wary of one part of the plan. President Obama wants to use billions of dollars to renovate or build new facilities at community colleges. Smith says students could end up paying for the continued operation of those buildings and programs in the future, through their tuition dollars.
President Obama plans to pay for his $12 billion proposal by scrapping federal subsidies to banks that loan money to college students. But that change needs to be approved by Congress first -- something the banking industry is not likely to allow without a fight.
The proposal itself would be included in budget bills that will go before Congress in the next few months. If it's approved, the money could begin to flow to community colleges by early 2010.