Cover Story: Cash for community colleges

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - President Obama on Tuesday making a pitch for community colleges.  He's proposing spending $12 billion over the next decade to strengthen them.  As PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson reports in our Cover Story it couldn't come at a better time.

Mr. Obama says jobs requiring at least an associate degree are expected to grow twice as fast as those requiring no college degree in the coming years.

Aaron Berryhill is the kind of student the president has in mind.

29 years old, he left his job working at Presbyterian Hospital transporting patients, now plans to go to school to get a better job as a surgical technician in the O.R.

"My parents always told me education comes first.. without it you get nowhere," says Berryhill.

But in the world of higher education community colleges have never gotten a fair shake from the federal government.

Estimates are Uncle Sam provides the country's 2-year colleges with about $2 billion a year in direct support.  One-tenth of what it spends on public four year schools.

But in a recession like this-- community colleges are on the front lines in helping workers get retrained in new careers.

Speaking to an outdoor crowd at a community college in a Detroit suburb President Obama today rolled out a plan to spend $12 billion over the next decade to train more people for jobs that will be available in the future.

About $9 billion would go for federal grants aimed at boosting graduation rates.

$2.5 billion for construction and renovation at community colleges.

And a half a billion to develop new online courses.

At Central Piedmont Community College.. improvements began years ago to accommodate a growing student body.

Several new building on the college's main campus near downtown will open over the next year.. and renovations are underway on aging facilities.

CPCC's Jessica Graham says the additional federal dollars will help them do even more.

"It's again fabulous to us.. very exciting to us that the President has recognized the role of community colleges in helping this economy recover," says Graham.

Helping the unemployed recover.. CPCC launched a curriculum of programs "Resources for Changing Careers"

More than 100 programs students can take.. that in 18 months they can have a degree in a field that's hiring.

Fields in health care. Energy. And technical careers.. like electricians machinists and HVAC.

"There are lots of very short term training that we offer that get folks right back out into the job market," says Graham.

But it's all coming at a difficult time for community colleges.

Enrollment at CPCC is up 22 percent in the last 18 months as more people go back to school.. while state and local funding is down because of budget shortfalls.

Federal shot in the arm is welcomed, say officials.

How soon might the money arrive?

Most likely first half of next year.. President Obama is asking for the money to be included in the budget bills that Congress considers during the next several months.