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Report by alum, faculty affiliates grounds Obama college initiative

Faculty affiliates Sara Goldrick-Rab and Douglas Harris, an alum, co-authored the Brookings Institution report that helped to inform President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, a 10-year, $12 billion investment in community colleges. The president announced the plan on July 14.

Douglas Harris Sara Goldrick-Rab

Harris, a 1996 La Follette School grad, and Goldrick-Rab wrote the report with co-authors Christopher Mazzeo of the Consortium on Chicago School Research and Gregory Kienzl of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. They urged the federal government to make a significant investment in community colleges to help more people graduate from a post-secondary institution with a certificate or degree.

“Over the last two centuries, the United States created an advantage over other countries by helping our citizens attain formal education, generating an able workforce and technological advancement,” the report says. “Yet U.S. higher educational attainment, long considered a ladder to economic and social success, has stalled and now reinforces inequalities between rich and poor America.”

“The basic approach of the Obama Administration’s education policy has been to use short-term funding increases to leverage long-term systematic changes—and nowhere does that seem more warranted than community colleges,” says Harris, an associate professor of educational policy studies. “They’ve just been squeezed out by K-12 on one side and universities on the other.”

Obama's proposal, much like the Brookings report, includes programs to give colleges grants intended to help more students complete degree programs. These grants are to be tied to a performance measurement system to require colleges to track and report results.

“‘I have to say it’s probably the only thing I’ve ever written that so many people thought was such a good idea,’” Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology, told the Capital Times. “‘The president did more than I ever thought he would. He really took the bull by the horns here and put community colleges front and center in the higher education agenda.”

“The stars were aligned on this one,” Harris adds. “We knew from the campaign and other speeches that President Obama was really interested in the issue. Our timing turned out just right and our thinking apparently really fit with the administration’s. As any graduate of La Follette can attest, that doesn’t happen very often.”

A shorter version of this story appeared in the fall 2009 La Follette Notes newsletter for alumni and friends.

UW-Madison profs help shape bold initiative for community colleges, July 20, 2009, Capital Times

Community colleges' new clout, July 18, 2009, Boston Globe

Transforming America’s Community Colleges: A Federal Policy Proposal to Expand Opportunity and Promote Economic Prosperity, May 2009, Brookings Institution

— posted July 20, 2009; updated October 6, 2009