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Officials advocate for community colleges on Capitol Hill

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Posted at 12:26 PM, Feb 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-12 12:26:11-05

When Texas community college officials and students met with legislators Wednesday, they advocated for improvements to higher education, including changes to the Pell Grant, President Barack Obama’s community college proposal and a comprehensive system to measure the success of community colleges.

The officials and students from Texas are in Washington for the annual Association of Community College Trustees legislative summit with officials from more than 30 states. As part of the event, officials meet with their legislators to lobby for community colleges’ interests.

This year, Congress will reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which gives community college advocates an especially important opportunity to seek changes and improvements.

Jill Biden, who is a faculty member at  Northern Virginia Community College, has advocated for the value of community colleges and spoke Wednesday at the ACCT’s morning session. 

Obama recently proposed a program called America’s College Promise that would make two years of community college tuition-free for qualifying students.

“That’s what's so special about community colleges,” Biden said. “They open the doors for so many Americans, new and returning students, to enter the middle class and are foundational to strengthening state and local economies.”
The increased focus on community colleges and this year’s reauthorization of the Higher Education Act have added an emphasis to higher education.

“I think that focus gives us an added opportunity to meet and make our requests known,” Richard M. Rhodes, president and CEO of Austin Community College District, said.

Following the Great Recession, the role of community colleges has grown. From 2007 to 2011, enrollment in community colleges nationwide grew by 21.8 percent, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. This is commonly attributed to the economic downturn as people who were out of work trained for new careers.

Students from community colleges in Texas accompanied officials. Carolina Correa, 23, studies business at Brookhaven College in Dallas. She said coming to Washington gave students the unique opportunity to have their voices heard by legislators and to demonstrate the effect community college has had on their lives.

“Community college has made a difference for us, and we want to make sure that community colleges keep on improving and being better and being the first option for some students,” Correa said. “We wanted them to see that community college has provided a great education.”

Students also advocated for specific issues, including the restoration of the year-long Pell Grant, an improved means of measuring success of community colleges and the president’s free community college proposal.
Jose Carreon, 20, attends El Centro College in Dallas and studies film, radio and TV. He said students were advocating for a revised system to measure the success of community colleges with less emphasis on the graduation rate and more emphasis on other positive outcomes.

He said it should count as a success students who finish high school and start college at the same time and those who get jobs after earning a certificate instead of an associate’s degree.

“All these people never really get to count because of the way the metric system is, so we want to advocate for that,” he said.

Rhodes said the group met with Texas Reps. Lloyd Dogget, D, and Lamar Smith, R, on Tuesday. Wednesday they met with Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Reps. Michael McCaul and John Carter, all Republicans.

Reach reporter Allison Kite at (202) 408-1491. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.