Obama Reaffirms Support for Community Colleges at Signing of Student-Loan Bill

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP Photo

President Obama gives a thumbs-up signal during a ceremony at Northern Virginia Community College, where he signed the health-care and student-loan measure into law last week.
March 30, 2010

President Obama signed legislation last week that ends the bank-based lending system for student loans and pours tens of billions of federal dollars into higher education.

At the signing ceremony, which was held here at Northern Virginia Community College, the president also announced that Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and an English instructor at the college, will lead a community-college summit at the White House this fall. The president thrust community colleges into the limelight last summer when he called on them to produce five million more graduates by 2020 and proposed a $12-billion plan to improve and expand the institutions. But the student-loan bill provides just a portion of the money Mr. Obama had sought.

The legislation, which also overhauls the nation's health-care system, uses the savings from ending subsidies to private student lenders to provide about $43-billion over 10 years for spending on education. Most of that money, about $36-billion, will go to the Pell Grant program for low-income students. Other beneficiaries, in addition to community colleges, include minority-serving institutions and a grant program to improve college access and completion.

President Obama called the student-lending overhaul "one of the most significant investments in higher education since the GI Bill." He criticized the banked-based lending system, calling it a "sweetheart deal," and condemned loan companies such as Sallie Mae that spent millions of dollars on "armies of lobbyists" to fight the bill.

"We need to invest that money in our students," the president said. "We need to invest in our community colleges, we need to invest in the future of this country."

In announcing the White House meeting on community colleges, Mr. Obama called those institutions "one of the great undervalued assets in our education system."

The measure signed last week provides $2-billion for job training at community colleges. A version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives in September had contained $10-billion for the institutions and would have financed a broader array of programs, including the colleges' efforts to meet the president's 2020 graduation goal.

Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, said he was disappointed by the drop in money devoted to community colleges in the final bill, but he still called the measure a "landmark piece of legislation." He said the bill was important both financially and symbolically.

"I hope it draws attention to the fact that America's community colleges represent one of our best resources for putting America's working class back to work," Mr. Templin said in an interview this week.

He said that the reduction in funds for community colleges could slow progress on some projects his college is involved in, which he had hoped the bigger pot of money in the earlier version of the bill might help finance. Those projects include a national work-force-training partnership between community colleges and Goodwill Industries International and a statewide effort in Virginia to increase rates of enrollment and completion for first-generation college students.

But Mr. Templin said the college did operate programs that would be potential candidates for the aid in the newly signed bill, including programs to assist out-of-work adults who need retraining and to help people transition from dying industries to emerging ones.