Bush plan for community colleges: training ground for low-wage jobs

One day after his January 20 State of the Union address, President Bush made an appearance at the Perrysburg Township campus of Owens Community College, near Toledo, Ohio. Addressing an invitation-only audience, Bush pushed his plan for community colleges to become more focused on job training, offering the example of Owens Community College as a model for other two-year institutions to emulate. If Bush’s marching orders gain acceptance and other community colleges follow Owens’ lead, many working class students will have even less hope of a finding a good job and a rewarding future.

During his speech, Bush outlined his plan for what he called “community-based training programs,” which will involve $250 million in federal seed monies to fund “job training partnerships between community colleges and local high-growth industries.” He is also proposing an additional $33 million increase in the federal Pell Grant program, which offers nonrefundable assistance to deserving, usually low-income students.

However, the figures Bush cites are deceptive. As several sources, including the WSWS, have noted, the $250 million figure represents only one-fourth of the nearly $1 billion his administration has cut from Labor Department job-training for adults. [SeeUS: Bush education proposals target community college students”] Thus, the administration will now actually spend less on job training and transfer responsibility for the same to community colleges.

The conduit for these monies and conditions for their disbursement is also suspect. Instead of the Department of Education, the Department of Labor will doll out the money to community colleges for job training. In addition, according to the Washington DC office of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), Bush’s proposal will be “a one-time initiative only, relying on previously generated funds” and the training program will be “a competitive state grant program” mandating community colleges to work with local businesses to decide which job skills are to be taught.

What form of competition might this program take? Neither the AACC nor the Bush administration has offered details, but it’s reasonably safe to guess that with increased funding tied to creating job-training centers, community colleges will be scrambling to herd many working class students into job training instead of academic fields. As happened during the high-tech mania of the mid- to late ’90s, when working class students not only wound up with low-paying computer-related jobs but often found themselves going back to their community college for more “retraining” after losing their positions, Bush’s job training proposal will likely leave many more working class students without a sufficient education to gain a decent paying job.

Bush’s promise to increase by $33 million the federal funding for Pell Grants will not come close to replacing the $270 million that the US Congress will cut from Pell Grant funding beginning with the 2004-2005 school year (Congressional Research Service). Even if Congress were to decide against cutting the $270 million, the American Federation of Teachers reports that “Pell grants, for which the maximum grant today covers only 42 percent of costs, fall far short of need.” The AFT adds that “To restore the Pell grant program to the value it had for students in the 1970s would thus require an additional investment of at least $12 [billion] to $15 billion annually.”

Bush was more truthful, however, when speaking about which community colleges will be helped, and why. “We’re going to make sure the community college system does its job,” pledged Bush. “As you know full well, particularly if you’re a trustee of the community college, most of the money is local money, but the federal government can help, particularly when it comes to job training.”

During the past year, state cuts in funding for community colleges have been drastic, with the consequence of higher tuition rates to cover expenses. Most states are looking to cut funding even more this year, and California’s recent announcement of a 48 percent tuition increase strongly suggests that community colleges will be forced to once again raise tuitions dramatically. In this context, Bush’s none-too-subtle hint that federal funding will come to those who jump on the job-training bandwagon seems to have found receptive ears among community college administrators.

Bush also left little doubt about the kind of community college others should emulate, underscoring the real purpose of his job-training initiative. Using language more frequently associated with corporate CEOs, Bush declared, “If you’re running a community college, I want you to pay attention to what Owens is doing (emphasis added).” In terms of student enrollment, Owens Community College’s success has been remarkable. Founded in 1965 as a small technical institution, Owens Community College is now, according to its web site, “the fastest growing higher educational institution in Ohio with 27 consecutive semesters of enrollment increases. On the Toledo area and Findlay, Ohio-area campuses, Owens serves more than 40,000 credit and non-credit students.” Owens’ enrollment is nearly twice that of the nearby four-year University of Toledo (20,594).

What is Owens doing right to account for their success and draw Bush’s praise? For starters, state funding cuts have hit four-year colleges and universities much harder than they have community colleges because tuition rates at the former have always been much higher. For example, tuition per credit hour at Owens stands at $89 for in-state students and $179 for out-of-state, while tuition per credit hour at the University of Toledo is $225 for in-state and $585 for out-of-state. With the present economic conditions, it’s little wonder that many prospective students, particularly working class students, are choosing Owens over the University of Toledo.

But Ohio has a number of community colleges charging significantly lower tuition fees than their four-year counterparts. So why, then, did Bush choose to come to Owens and laud its exemplary status? Three features of Owens Community College suggest that the real reason for Bush’s touting of Owens as a model for community colleges is to ensure that these institutions serve to maintain social inequality by preparing students for lower-paying jobs.

First, the ongoing shift from full-time to part-time/adjunct faculty—driven by funding cuts and expensive technologies and felt most painfully at the community college level—practically guarantees working class students a lesser education. While most part-time instructors are at least as qualified as their full-time counterparts, the very nature of their working conditions—teaching at sometimes two or even three different colleges, often lacking office space to meet students, and low pay and no benefits or job security—negatively influences the quality of their instruction.

Owens is a prime example of this phenomenon, with approximately 900 part-time or adjunct instructors for its 40,000 students, or roughly one part-time instructor for every 40 students. This ratio does not equal a quality education. If Bush means for other community colleges to emulate Owens by hiring more part-time instructors to cut costs, he couldn’t ask for a better model. In fact, on the day before Bush visited Owens, the college laid off eight full-time staff members, five of whom, ironically, were involved with job training (the [Toledo] Blade, 01/20/04).

Second, diluting community college programs, especially those that have traditionally offered working class students the opportunity to gain better, higher paying jobs, also guarantees a lower quality education. Nursing has been one of these avenues, and the present shortage of nurses would seem to argue that there are plenty of opportunities for working class students. While Bush has placed increasing the number of health care jobs at the top of his job-training goals, he fails to mention the overwork and inadequate pay cited by nursing publications and numerous studies as the main reason for nurses leaving and/or not entering the field. He also does not mention the “drastic cuts in state and local funding” that have “hamstrung high-quality programs such as nursing” (AACS statement, 01/21/04).

Instead, Bush argues that the present nursing shortage is due to community colleges producing too many graduates for jobs that don’t exist instead of positions that are crying to be filled, such as nursing. From Bush’s point of view, then, Owens’ recent decision to drop sociology and general psychology from its nursing program requirements and replace them with easier but less useful (for nurses) speech and watered-down mathematics courses would appear a logical path for community colleges to follow if they are interested in more swiftly moving students through their nursing programs. But if more students leave community colleges with a diluted nursing degree they will have more difficulty finding another job when they can no longer withstand the demands and low pay of the nursing field.

However, perhaps the most distressing sign that Bush will use community colleges to prop up the present unequal distribution of wealth is Owens’ plan to open a Fire and Police Training Center for Homeland Security by 2005. The community college is “depending on federal funding for the $10 million project, and “has already received $1.125 million from the State of Ohio” for the center (Owens Community College press release, 12/16/03). The facilities will include “a Terrorism Simulation Center” (Owens Community College press release, 12/11/02). The government is hopeful that working class students, empty of hope for a good-paying, satisfying job and constantly barraged by media-fed jingoistic patriotism, will sign on for the Homeland Security project. More importantly, by encouraging other community colleges to develop their own homeland security training centers, the Bush administration will defray at least some of the costs for the domestic side of the “war on terror.”

Owens Community College wasted little time selling themselves as the president’s community college of choice. In the February 1 issue of the [Toledo] Blade, Owens ran a full-page advertisement featuring a color photograph of Bush standing in front of an American flag with the words “We’ve earned Presidential approval” at the top of the page and the president’s own directive to other community colleges—“I want you to pay attention to what Owens has done”—running alongside his face. Beneath the photograph of the president is the promise that “Owens remains committed to keeping your [President Bush’s] approval rating high by providing quality education and training at an affordable cost.”

In the short term, Bush’s proposal to turn community colleges into job-training centers will save money and force “graduates” to stay in low-paying jobs because they will not be qualified to look elsewhere. From the viewpoint of the ruling elite, therefore, Bush’s job-training initiative will have proved a success. Eventually, however, if this proposal is carried out it will only exacerbate the existing economic inequalities and their attendant social tensions.