It would be a cultural shift, but the Obama administration is hoping to change the perception of two- and four-year universities and what is needed for success.
Through two new skills-training programs, utilizing grant money announced in 2010, the administration is encouraging a competition to foster courses developed by industry at the community college level and an apprentice job scholarship program.
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden appeared at a community college in Pittsburgh today to announce $500 million in grant funding for community college job-training programs and $100 million in funding for apprenticeship grants.
Speaking in an auto bay where students at the Community College of Allegheny County learn "mechatronics" - "It sounds like something Godzilla would be fighting," Obama said - the two elaborated on the need for middle-class opportunities and presented a view of a rebounding U.S. economy in which companies are ready to add jobs but are having trouble finding skilled workers to fill them.
"In today's economy it has never been more important to make sure that our folks are trained for the jobs that are there and the jobs of the future," he said. "Find out what are the jobs that need to be filled and make sure folks are being trained and matched to those good jobs. We have to move away from a train and pray approach. We train them and we pray that they get a job.
"The problem there is when they go to a community college, when they go to four-year university, they are taking on debt. They are straining their budgets. We have to make sure it pays off for them. So we need to take a job-driven approach."
Before the event the president and VP received a tour of the school and met with mechatronics students enrolled in a 360-hour program, who showed them a motor-control system, which was set up to simulate a garage door opener.
Obama joked with the students, saying, "We're lawyers, we barely understand garage door openers."
The administration cites that 87 percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs with an average starting salary of $50,000. The president has mentioned community colleges many times but has fallen short of his initial plans to add over $10 billion in funding to them through grants.
He launched an American Growth Initiative in 2009 that was to inject community colleges with sweeping new funds. Here's Slate's Christopher Beam on that push in July 2009:
"Community colleges don't get a lot of respect. Except, as of this week, from President Obama. In a speech Tuesday in Warren, Mich., he proposed sinking nearly $12 billion into revamping the country's community-college system. The plan would provide $9 billion in grant money to boost academic programs and raise graduation rates, plus another $2.5 billion to upgrade school facilities. It would also fund open-source online courses so that schools don't have to build more classrooms to admit more students."
The $500 million Obama announced today isn't new, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AAOC); it's the fourth installment of $2 billion in funding Congress passed in 2009, in lieu of Obama's original proposal.
A congressional aide confirmed that, after the CBO scored Democrats' 2009 student-loan bill less favorably on a second pass, education funding was less than what the president and Democrats had initially hoped. Community-college funding was one of the programs that felt the axe.
"It had a very bittersweet ending for us," David Baime, vice president of government relations for AAOC, told ABC News. While the group was "very pleased" to get $2 billion in grant funding for community colleges, Baime said, "unofficially we were very upset."
Obama, while not necessarily more supportive of community colleges than other presidents, has nonetheless put a valuable spotlight on them, Baime told ABC.
The vice president joined Obama for the tour, introducing the president as "a buddy of mine."