California community colleges may gain from Obama plan

By Jessica Philipps

WASHINGTON – California, home to a quarter of the nation’s community college students, could reap huge benefits from President Barack Obama’s $8 billion plan to pair local businesses and schools.

Los Angeles campuses such as Pierce, Mission, and Trade Technical are among the hundreds of community colleges expected to compete for the money aimed at teaching students the skills they need to fill job opportunities in their community.

“The initiative is definitely competitive, which does mean that California will get a large portion of the funds,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Community College Association.

The proposal comes as the state’s community colleges face a $149 million deficit which is forcing difficult cuts in a system that serves 2.9 million Californians on more than 100 campuses.

“It would really complement what we’re doing as a community college,” said L.A. Harbor College President Marvin Martinez. “We want to give them the training and the skills to start their own businesses. We are very supportive of what the president is proposing because it really is a win-win situation.”

Obama introduced the initiative during his State of the Union Address, calling on “a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job.”

The $8 billion “Community College to Career Fund” is aimed at training workers in high-growth areas such as health care, transportation, and advanced manufacturing.
The initiative includes proposals for low-income students to attain specialized internships in high-skilled fields in order to secure permanent jobs. It also provides funding incentives for employers who seek to increase partnerships with schools.

For L.A. Trade Technical College that could mean building upon its relationship with utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and PG&E, who already employ many of the school’s graduates.

“We are very pleased that the president has come out with the idea for people to go to community colleges for career training because we are already doing it and we feel like we’re in a good position because of our facilities and training programs,” said college spokesman David Ysais.

The California Community College system, the world’s largest higher education program, has been a pathway for millions of residents to four-year universities and the workforce.

“There are unlimited opportunities to improve the skills of Californians to meet the needs of the rebounding economy; you will find it in health care, transportation, manufacturing,” said Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California.

“What’s clear is California’s economic rebound is dependent on providing Californians who can attract jobs,” Lay said.

The prospect of the initiative passing Congress in an era of deep deficits is unclear. Republicans have resisted any large spending programs that are not accompanied by equal reductions.

The Republican National Committee attacked the plan as a recycled idea aimed more at generating attention than training workers.

“If Obama wants to get serious about reining in his $1.3 trillion budget deficit, he could start by cutting duplicative programs that are more useful for photo opportunities than job opportunities,” the party posted on its website.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum ridiculed the president’s overall push for higher education last week, calling Obama a “snob” for wanting everyone to go to college. However several Republican governors offered support for Obama’s education plan after he addressed the National Governors Association at the White House.

Obama told the governors that his higher education plans are not just about earning four-year degrees.

“We’re talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that now is requiring somebody walking through the door, handling a million-dollar piece of equipment,” Obama said. “And they can’t go in there unless they’ve got some basic training beyond what they received in high school.”

California community colleges have had success winning federal support for similar programs in the past. Last year, 15 counties in partnership with the Central Valley Community College Consortium received $20 million from a nationwide grant for career training that will be distributed over four years.

Lay said California’s previous achievements gave Washington an inside look at how successful the state’s programs could be.

“It signals to the administration that there is a lot of capacity here in California that has potential,” Lay said. “Initially, the federal government gave money to states to maintain education around budget cuts, but now there is this shift in mind-set. The government is saying `Let’s have a federal program that encourages colleges to work together.”‘

California community colleges are burdened by a $149million shortfall due to a dip in property taxes and the California Finance Department’s overestimation of student fees. Gov. Jerry Brown’s most recent budget invests $218 million to fill the gap, but only if his proposed tax initiative is approved by voters.

“We are seeing our system shrink, we are in higher demand than ever and students can’t get into classes. If this money comes in and we can train workers, it’s going to help the bottom line,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor for workforce and economic development for the California Community College Chancellor’s office.

“We are the central institution to close the skill gap (between) what employers need and what workers should have. This is the central theme of the Obama administration’s goals.”

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