ccDaily > In an election year, advocates need to press Congress to act

In an election year, advocates need to press Congress to act

David Baime

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an article in the April/May 2012 edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Politico has become a must-read for congressional junkies, as much a part of Washington life as Variety is in Hollywood.

But, to the proverbial Mars visitor, the front-page headline on the Feb. 16 edition might have seemed distinctly odd. It read, “Congress Set to Pack It In for the Year.” Pack it in for the year in the middle of February? What gives? And what might this mean for community colleges?

The likelihood of virtually no significant legislation passing before the November elections is not an encouraging prospect for community college advocates. Our agenda is crowded with issues of major potential impact, obliging advocates to keep Congress focused on community college priorities. The stakes are as high as ever, raised by lagging state and local funding.

The only legislation Congress has to pass are the 12 annual appropriations bills. While the final versions of these bills will almost surely be enacted after the elections, perhaps not until 2013, the debate about individual program funding levels is already under way. Front and center in this debate is what to do about the Pell Grant program.

Popularity of Pell

Pell Grants have in recent years become a victim of their own success, reaching almost 10 million financially needy students each year, including 3.5 million community college students. The maximum grant is slated to reach $5,645 for the award year beginning July 1, 2013. But the program’s extraordinary growth has placed it in the budget-cutting crosshairs of big spenders and fiscal conservatives alike. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) engaged in a major effort to spare the program deep funding cuts in the current fiscal year, and, despite some setbacks, the end result was more positive than expected—kudos to all who helped in that effort.

It is not clear whether Pell will be on the chopping block again in 2012. A relatively small, and temporary, program surplus may reduce pressure for cuts in the FY 2013 funding cycle. It is also an election year, and the Pell Grant program remains extremely popular, politically. But the sheer size of the program—it accounts for a third of all U.S. Department of Education spending—inevitably draws scrutiny.

It and other programs remain at the top of AACC’s funding agenda. Some of these include the Carl D. Perkins Act (which the administration would overhaul), the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Strengthening Institutions, TRIO, GEAR UP, the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program and others.

Laws to reauthorize

WIA is on tap for reauthorization. A number of bills are pending in the House and Senate. All of these bills have positive features, and many reflect AACC’s priorities. However, it appears likely that partisan differences will once again prevent this legislation from being enacted. Individuals across the country are worse off because of this impasse.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), created in 2009, also needs to be extended by year’s end. The $2,500 credit has become a major source of college financing and is now claimed by more than 9 million students each year. AOTC builds on the Hope Scholarship tax credit and is much more favorable to community college students.

To be extended, the credit needs to be “paid for,” i.e., offset by other spending cuts in mandatory programs or tax increases. (Congress does have some binding procedures in place that operate effectively to limit spending.) Locating these funds, however, amid many competitors, is a major challenge for AACC.

The president’s proposals

In addition to existing programs, the Obama administration proposed several new community college initiatives currently pending before Congress. Although presidential support for community colleges is not new (recall George W. Bush’s Community-Based Job Training Grants), the scale of President Barack Obama’s proposals is unprecedented.

Among the big-ticket items, Congress is considering $8 billion for a Community College to Career Fund, designed to enhance the ability of community colleges to meet current workforce needs and to address the lingering skills gap.

The administration also continues to support a $5-billion community college infrastructure modernization proposal, presented last September as part of the American Jobs Act. The need for these funds is acute, even if the odds of receiving them are not good.

Given this agenda, not to mention other national priorities, 2012 would seem an odd year for Congress to take a pass on supporting community colleges. It is up to our community to make sure it doesn’t.

Baime is senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.