2-Year Colleges Get Details of $2-Billion Grant Program

January 20, 2011

After months of waiting, community colleges received notice on Thursday of the application guidelines for a much-anticipated grant program that will allow them to create, expand, and restructure job-training programs.

The Obama administration is touting the $2-billion grant program not only as a way to improve the nation's battered economy but also to meet its college-going and degree-completion goals. President Obama wants every American to have at least one year of postsecondary education and wants the United States, by 2020, to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Over the next year, the U.S. Department of Labor, in coordination with the U.S. Education Department, will award about $500-million through the grant program. A total of $2-billion will be given out over the next four years. Money for the program, titled the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program, was allocated through the health-care bill the president signed last year. (Details about the grant program can be found on the Labor Department's Web site.)

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the grant program "historic" during a news conference on Thursday and also said it would be a way to get "the country back on its feet."

The announcement of the program's details has been long anticipated by community-college officials. President Obama first proposed a major grant program for community colleges in 2009, shortly after taking office. He originally proposed a $12-billion plan to improve community colleges, called the American Graduation Initiative, but that plan collapsed during negotiations over legislation to overhaul student aid and the nation's health-care system. The final bill left community colleges with a $2-billion career-training program under the Department of Labor.

Even though the community-college sector initially expressed disappointment over the collapse of the bigger grant program, many community-college officials are grateful that the Obama administration continues to give their institutions attention and recognizes their importance, especially given that they enroll nearly half of all undergraduates in this country.

"The grant solicitation reflects an appreciation of the ways that community colleges are re-examining and refining their methods of providing cutting-edge education and training," said David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Awarding the Grants

Nonprofit community colleges aren't the only institutions that can apply for the grants. The program is open to all two-year, degree-granting institutions, so for-profit institutions are also expected to apply for the money.

Grants will be awarded to both individual institutions and to consortia of two or more eligible institutions. The Labor Department intends to award grants ranging from $2.5-million to $5-million for individual applicants and from $2.5-million to $20-million for consortium applicants. Grantees must enter partnerships with at least one employer to be eligible to receive the grant money.

The program could result in a significant federal investment in online education. The Education and Labor Departments are encouraging proposals for the creation of openly available online courses, putting the government's support behind the burgeoning movement to publish learning materials free on the Web.

The grant program will reward projects that find ways to bolster the economy through new or improved education and training programs that meet the needs of local or regional businesses. In fact, the population the grant program is designed to help is workers who have lost their jobs or are threatened with job loss as a result of foreign trade. That emphasis doesn't preclude other students from enrolling in supported projects after they have been formed.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said during Thursday's news conference that everyone, especially workers who have lost jobs because of foreign trade, "deserves access to the level of education necessary to obtain employment that can support a family." The grant program, she said, provides an opportunity for workers to acquire skills and industry-recognized credentials needed to compete in a global economy.