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Published: Friday, 7/17/2009

Community colleges getting the respect they deserve

WARREN, Mich. - Four years ago, Michigan decided to take a hard look at what was needed in terms of higher education in the state.

Led by Lt. Gov. John Cherry, the top experts studied the problem, wrote a well-received report, and nothing happened.

On Tuesday, President Obama stopped in the state for a couple of hours, made a short speech that more accurately diagnosed the problem than that massive report, and announced a revolution of sorts in education funding.

A big part of America's future, he said, lies with the nation's community colleges, which have long played a multifaceted mission in the country's education universe. They provide advanced vocational education for some. Many more conventional college students attend community colleges for two years to save tuition money and get their skills up to speed.

Community colleges are also the center of training and retraining efforts for many thousands who have lost manufacturing jobs, in most cases forever.

Yet community colleges - still sometimes sneered at as "junior colleges"- have gotten too-little respect.

Not any longer, if Mr. Obama has his way. Speaking at Macomb Community College in Warren, the President announced a mammoth $12 billion program he called the American Graduation Initiative.

"It will reform and strengthen community colleges so they get the resources that students and skills need, and the results workers and businesses demand," he said.

Mr. Obama also talked bluntly about the devastated economy.

"The hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won't be coming back," he told an invitation-only audience at Macomb, which has 23,000 students.

Two years ago, any politician who said something like that might have been dead meat with voters here, in a county nationally famous for white blue-collar "Reagan Democrat" auto workers.

But since then, the world has changed. The auto industry has largely collapsed, General Motors and Chrysler have gone through bankruptcy, and Michigan is more full of dread than auto industry pride.

Thousands fear they will never work again. Many have no idea what to do. The President spoke to them: "We know that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate's 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."

That doesn't just mean two-year degrees. It means targeted certificate programs, and the sort of things community colleges do best. Michigan has nearly a quarter of a million community college students, a number that has seen steady growth.

Yet it is a sector that has still had trouble winning respect.

Four years ago, when times were still relatively good, the blue-ribboned "Cherry Commission," called on Michigan to double the number of students graduating with bachelor's degrees by 2015.

That made sense. Compared to nearby states, Michigan has a smaller percentage of its young adults with college degrees. Reason? For decades, youngsters could emerge from high school and get a high-paying job bending metal on an assembly line.

Those days are now gone forever. But the Cherry Commission virtually ignored vocational training. And for many former manufacturing workers, a conventional bachelor's degree is probably not the answer; a new skill set is.

The President made it clear that his motives were practical. Politicians, he noted, "have spoken of training as a silver bullet and college as a cure-all. It's not, and we know that."He intends to "create programs that match curricula in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom." He wants a new research center "to measure what works and what doesn't," and to make sure any certificate or degree a retrained worker earns really means something.

Sounding like a combination of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Mr. Obama also called for a vast expansion of online classes, and evoked that "can-do American spirit that has allowed us to succeed in the face of even the toughest odds."

Though a few hundred anti-tax, anti-spending protesters gathered a short distance away, the President is overwhelmingly popular even in this part of Michigan, a largely white enclave where many residents are culturally conservative and loathe Detroit.

These days, however, little other than the economy is on their minds. Last fall, Macomb voters, who backed George W. Bush four years before, voted solidly for President Obama. "I don't care if he is purple if he is good for jobs," one elderly woman told me then.

That sentiment, and their desperation, is even stronger now.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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