Would the nation’s 1,200 community colleges (and their 11 million students) be better off if the national trade association that represents them severed its ties to One Dupont Circle, the long-time headquarters of most of the national higher education associations?
Wick Sloane, a journalist who teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, thinks so. In a witty and provocative column last week in Inside Higher Ed, Sloane, who regularly writes about inequities in higher education, laid out the agenda he would pursue if he was handed the reins of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), which is currently in the midst of a presidential search. Among his top priorities would be to end the group’s membership in the “Big Six,” the major national higher education lobbying groups, which, he argued, primarily represent the interests of four-year public and private colleges and research universities.
“I hereby stipulate the integrity of The Five, whose interests are legitimate too,” Sloane wrote. “But am I the only one to have noticed that since the beginning of time the colleges and universities in the Five have received pretty much all of the federal money? While community colleges have had the most students with the highest need?”
Given the role that some of the associations recently played in helping undermine an ambitious Obama administration proposal to revitalize the country’s community colleges, he certainly has a point. We’re referring to the now-defunct American Graduation Initiative, a ten-year, $12 billion effort that was designed to boost the number of community college graduates by five million over the next decade. The program, which was initially to be included as part of the student loan reform legislation that Congress approved in March, would have also provided funds for community colleges to build stronger links with high schools and the workforce, expand their course offerings, improve their remedial and adult education programs, and upgrade and expand their facilities.
The additional resources would have been like manna from heaven for these cash-strapped schools, which are facing such an extreme funding crisis that many of these generally open-enrollment institutions are being forced to turn away tens of thousands of low-income and working-class students who are in desperate need of their services.
But most of the other college groups -- “The Five,” as Sloane calls them -- were not persuaded. Officials at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), which represents private colleges, were particularly irate about the favoritism being shown to community colleges. In an e-mail to his members, David Warren, the president of NAICU, railed against the proposal before the president had even unveiled it. “There are some disturbing signs,” he warned, “that enthusiasm for expanding their [community colleges’] role may drive policy decisions that are both unfair and unwise.” The plans, he complained, “have the federal government providing funds to one sector of American higher education, to the exclusion of other sectors.”
After NAICU officials learned that the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor had included the community college proposal in the panel’s version of the student loan reform bill, they sent out a legislative alert to their members arguing that the proposal “shifts the relationship with the federal government from student-based toward institution-based.”
At Higher Ed Watch, we find the audacity and the pettiness of these arguments difficult to fathom. Was NAICU suggesting that policymakers should not be able to devote the government’s limited resources to institutions that are most in need of the help and where they believe the money would do the most good for the welfare of the country? Or that the government should hold off from providing any new money to higher education unless it can ensure that each sector gets an equal cut, no matter how deserving?
NAICU officials well know that the financial aid programs, largely designed over the last 40 years by New England lawmakers with lots of prestigious private colleges in their home states, as a whole tilt heavily in their institutions’ (and the public flagship universities’) favor. The private college group has successfully fought time and again to defeat efforts by policymakers to rewrite the campus based aid funding formula to ensure that the schools that predominantly serve the most disadvantaged students (i.e. community colleges) get their fair share of the funds. At the same time, private college lobbyists have not hesitated to lobby for generous tuition tax deduction proposals that provide little benefit to community college students but favor their sector's students disproportionately.
To be clear, we recognize that it would be unfair to place the blame for the demise of the American Graduation Initiative entirely on the shoulders of the college groups that opposed it or at least signaled their distaste for it. The program was one of several that Congressional leaders slashed in a last-minute scramble to make sure that the reconciliation measure met its revised and lowered budget targets. If Democratic lawmakers had acted on the legislation sooner -- before March when the Congressional Budget office was due to re-estimate the measure’s savings -- the program probably would have survived intact in the final bill. [To mollify community colleges, lawmakers did include $2 billion over four years for a job training program that had been created in the economic stimulus legislation but never been funded.]
Still, the fact that the administration’s proposal caused such dissension among the college lobbying groups made it an easy target when the bill had to be pared down.
Will the community college association leave One Dupont Circle, as Sloane suggests it should? There’s no chance. But frankly, given the shoddy treatment community colleges received from the higher education associations and NAICU in particular, we’re surprised that more of the group’s members are not demanding that the option at least be considered.