In the days since President Obama announced plans to invest an unprecedented $12 billion in the nation's community colleges, he has received praise for training the national spotlight on institutions he says are too frequently "treated like the ugly stepchild of the higher-education system." But the shimmer of that spotlight already has started to fade, and critics are raising questions about whether the president's goal to rebuild the economy by helping 5 million more Americans graduate from two-year schools is feasible, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
About 75 percent of the money the president hopes to spend on community colleges will go toward creating grant programs for schools and states to test promising programs, ones that improve student learning, student completion rates, and schools' abilities to track their students' academic progress.
Experts say the $2.5 billion Obama hopes to spend revitalizing community colleges' infrastructure is vital for those schools' success in the future. Between the academic years that ended in 2002 and 2006, 2.3 million new students enrolled in community college courses, the largest number of new students since the 1960s. During the same period, two thirds of all state community colleges reported deferred maintenance needs, according to a 2007 survey by the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center.
Obama's proposal constitutes the first major, federally funded community college construction project since the 1960s, when the government doled out $1 billion each year between 1965 and 1970, says Stephen Katsinas, the policy center's director. "It's probably not enough; it's probably nowhere near enough," he says of the $2.5 billion infrastructure proposal. "But this is the first administration since Lyndon Johnson to see the need."
Questions have also been raised about the efficacy of Obama's plans to spend $500 million expanding students' access to online education. The administration hopes various federal agencies will collaborate to create new online courses, which will be "freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department's distributed-learning network." However, it's unclear how students would gain access to the courses, how they would earn credit for completing a course, and whether the free courses would be competitive alternatives to the many online community college courses already offered.