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Published: Wednesday, 7/15/2009

Obama unveils education initiative

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

WARREN, Mich. - In his first appearance in Michigan since the election, President Obama yesterday unveiled a plan he described as the most significant to upgrade and broaden access to community colleges since Harry Truman was president.

Mr. Obama told about 2,000 people in an open-air setting at Macomb Community College that his program to funnel $12 billion to the nation's two-year colleges would help make America the most college-educated country in the world and help propel the nation out of its economic rut.

"We know that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs - or even keep those jobs here in America - without the training offered by community colleges," President Obama said.

President Obama said his proposed American Graduation Initiative would help 5 million Americans earn degrees and certificates.

It would funnel federal money to community colleges by offering competitive grants to colleges that develop innovative ways of teaching students, keep them in college to finish their degrees, help them master basics such as math and communication skills, and create connections between students and employers.

Mr. Obama called his proposal the most significant step forward on behalf of community colleges since the GI Bill and President Truman's Commission on Higher Education, which helped to double the number of community colleges and increase enrollment in those colleges seven-fold. Truman was president from 1945-1953.

The program would be paid for by ending "wasteful subsidies" provided to banks and private lenders to make student loans. The Obama Administration has proposed removing the student loan program from banking and having the federal government make loans directly.

He also said the government would back $10 billion in loans to renovate and rebuild college classrooms and buildings.

He endorsed building an open source of online classes that would be especially beneficial in rural areas and for people who continue to work while trying to get a new education.

"I think there's a possibility that online education provides people already in the work force a chance to upgrade their skills without having to quit their job," Mr. Obama said.

College officials said the President recognized the importance of community colleges in providing training for displaced workers and educating fresh-out-of-high school students who can't afford a four-year college tuition.

"We were very, very heartened by this speech," said Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College, which is located about 80 miles northeast of Toledo.

He said the Warren area has a heavy dependence on automotive manufacturing. And he said Macomb has among the most students in the state participating in Michigan's No Worker Left Behind initiative that offers up to $5,000 a year for two years of tuition for workers seeking retraining. The college had 23,149 students enrolled in credit courses in the fall of 2008, up from 20,989 four years earlier.

"This federal initiative comes at a time when it is most needed," said George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. He said the earliest that funds could begin arriving at colleges would be the spring 2010 semester, if Congress approves the program.

He said the money from the federal government will help colleges meet the demand for education, and noted some states, such as Florida and California, are forced by budget shortfalls to cap enrollment.

Mr. Obama made several campaign trips last year to this heavily populated suburb of Detroit known as Reagan Democrat country.

He defended his efforts to right the economy and his government's support for GM and Chrysler.

"After a painful period of soul-searching and sacrifice, both GM and Chrysler have emerged from bankruptcy. Remember, folks said there was no way they could do it? They've gotten it done already, in record time, far faster than anybody thought possible," Mr. Obama said.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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