$20 billion in ed funding slashed from student aid legislation

Funding for an online course program was cut out of the final student aid bill.
$500 million in proposed funding to create open online courses was cut out of the final student aid bill.

In last-minute maneuvering designed to get the measure to pass, lawmakers eliminated $20 billion in proposed education funding from the student aid overhaul enacted by Congress last week—dampening enthusiasm for legislation that K-12 and higher-education officials had lobbied for over the past year. Of that $20 billion, $12 billion was slated for community colleges to boost graduation rates, partly through the development of open online courses, and $8 billion was pegged for an early-childhood education program.

Community college officials cheered the American Graduation Initiative (AGI) when lawmakers introduced the program last fall, but last-minute compromises and worries over the cost of the student aid bill forced legislators to eliminate the $12 billion set aside for AGI, observers said. The program aimed to help community colleges produce 5 million more graduates over the next decade.

AGI had included $500 million for an online skills laboratory modeled after Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI). The free, open internet classes were to be created by the Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor, according to a White House announcement.

Carnegie Mellon’s OLI courseware keeps tabs on what concepts students are grasping in their online work, and it lets professors tailor their lectures to help students in areas where they struggle. OLI officials said the program could raise college course completion by 25 percent.

A White House statement released in July said the federal open courseware program would allow students to “learn more in less time than they would with traditional classroom instruction alone.”

AGI’s proposed 10-year federal investment in community colleges would have provided timely and welcome assistance. Two-year colleges have seen an unprecedented enrollment spike that has stretched their budgets, as more adults return to school in the midst of a recession that has forced states to cut their funding for these schools at the same time.

“It’s obviously not the ultimately desired solution,” said Jim Hermes, a spokesman for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “But it was just one that was really forced by the larger circumstances in terms of how much money there was to put toward these certain [programs].”

Community college enrollment rose by 16.9 percent from fall 2007 to fall 2009, according to an AACC study. Full-time student enrollment jumped 24 percent in that same time, forcing some two-year campuses to hold classes during nights and weekends to accommodate record-size classes.

Two-year college enrollment jumped “more than in any other higher educational sector” between 2000 and 2006, according to research by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization.

Community colleges still will get $2 billion for developing or improving career training programs over the next four years. The final measure authorizes $500 million per year in competitive grants through fiscal 2014, through a program called the Community College and Career Training Grant Program. At least one institution in every state would be guaranteed at least $2.5 million in funding from the program.

The final version of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) also eliminated $8 billion for early-education initiatives. The funds were to create the Early Learning Challenge Fund, designed to spur competition for early-education providers.

“Obviously, this is a bitter disappointment to all of us who have been working on this bill since last summer,” said Cornelia Grumman, executive director of The First Five Years Fund, a Chicago-based organization that advocates for education programs for one- to five-year-olds. “We are looking forward to working with Congress and the administration to find another vehicle to fully fund this vital initiative. Today, our question to Congress is: What is Plan B for getting it done?”

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