Obama wants $12B for junior colleges

WARREN, Mich. — Conceding that unemployment will get worse before it shrinks, President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled a $12 billion plan to help community colleges prepare millions of people for a new generation of jobs.

Challenging critics, he said he welcomed the task of turning around the economy.

"I love the folks who helped get us in this mess and then suddenly say, 'Well, this is Obama's economy,' " the president told an outdoor crowd at Macomb Community College, veering off his scripted words. "That's fine. Give it to me. My job is to solve problems, not to stand on the sidelines and harp and gripe."

Obama did not identify his target for those comments, but he has been under increasing fire from Republicans over the pace of the economic recovery and the soaring deficit. He brought his message to a state reeling from the loss of auto industry jobs. Michigan's unemployment rate is 14.1 percent.

"The hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won't be coming back," Obama said.

"They are the casualties of a changing economy."

To that end, he proposed an "American Graduation Initiative" to bolster the two-year community college field that serves millions of students as a launching point for careers or as a step toward expanded higher education. The idea is to train people for jobs, such as those expected in the clean energy industry, when the economy turns around and begins to create jobs instead of shedding them.

Under the plan, competitive grants would be offered to schools to try new programs or expand training and counseling.

High dropout rates would be addressed by designing programs to track students and help them earn an associate's degree or finish their education at a four-year institution. Money would be spent to renovate and rebuild facilities, and online courses would be developed to help colleges offer more classes.

Recognition of value

Yosemite Community College District Chancellor Roe Darnell said Tuesday he was "thrilled" by the proposal, which comes amid continuing cuts from the state.

"I think it's a very good and proper recognition of the value of community colleges, particularly as they relate to our ability to recover economically," Darnell said.

Specifics have not been determined, but Darnell said he hopes the money will help community colleges attract students, raise graduation rates and improve occupational and technical programs.

"The president is supportive of job creation and training people for jobs that are meaningful," Darnell said. "It's a little bit of good news, but we always temper it by knowing the current economic situation in California means we're turning away more students."

The White House says the cost would be $12 billion over 10 years; Obama says it would be paid for by ending wasteful subsidies to banks and private lenders of student loans.

"Time and again, when we have placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result," Obama said.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former education secretary, said Obama's plan is a "typical proposal" that sounds better than it is.

"When our biggest problem as a country is too much debt, he's taking the entitlement spending he claims to be saving from the student loan program and adding it to the debt," Alexander said.

Obama's speech came a day after the White House issued an upbeat report predicting that health care and careers focused on the environment would help drive a jobs recovery, but that education and training would have to keep up with a demand for higher-skilled workers.

In the report, Obama's economic advisers said U.S. post-high school education and training need to be more effective at encouraging participants to complete their training and to respond to the labor market.

'Down payment' on education

Earlier Tuesday at the White House, Obama said he expected the nation's unemployment rate will continue to "tick up for several months."

It is at 9.5 percent, the highest in 26 years. Obama said renewed hiring tends to lag behind other signs of economic recovery.

In Michigan, Obama called the $12 billion in spending over the next decade "the most significant down payment" yet toward achieving his goal of having the highest college graduation rate of any nation.

Speaking in rolled-up sleeves, Obama said jobs requiring at least an associate's degree are expected to grow twice as fast as those for which a college education is not required.

"We will not fill those jobs, or keep those jobs on our shores, without the training offered by community colleges," Obama said.

Community colleges have been feeling pinched. Enrollments have been increasing for several reasons, including rising college costs at public and private institutions and the needs of people who have lost jobs and are eager to learn new skills.

About 6 million students attend community college, administration officials said. Obama is setting a goal of 5 million additional college graduates.

Meanwhile, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told Republican senators Tuesday at their private weekly luncheon at the Capitol that the government's $1 trillion deficit is the single biggest hurdle to economic recovery. In his speech, Obama acknowledged the problem of debt but said again that the only way to start reducing deficits is to reform the health care system, his dominant legislative priority.

Obama's trip wasn't all about policy, however. Before returning to the White House, he dropped by Busch Stadium in St. Louis to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Major League Baseball's annual All-Star game. It was his first pitch as president.