Bad economy is good news for community colleges

SARANAC LAKE -The good news keeps rolling in for the nation's community colleges.

President Barack Obama recently announced his "American Graduation Initiative," a 10-year plan that invests $12 billion in two-year institutions. The plan would be funded by eliminating wasteful subsidies to banks and private student loan providers.

Newly-appointed State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher visited North Country Community College's Saranac Lake campus last week. She says that the state's two-year schools should submit a group application to try and acquire a portion of that federal money.

"I'm hoping that the State University of New York and its 30 community colleges can put in an omnibus proposal to capture a sizeable number of those funds," Zimpher said. "I think it would be regrettable if we went after those funds one campus at a time when we could get a bigger share if we lifted up the whole system as a coordinated effort. I think the Obama administration would like to see that kind of coordination."

The $12 billion will be utilized in three ways. $9 billion will fund what are known as "challenge grants." Zimpher says challenge grants allow community colleges to try out new programs and expand existing training and counseling services. $2.5 billion goes to infrastructure and the improvement of campus facilities. The final $500 million is for the expansion of online education opportunities.

And while increased federal funding is welcomed news to administrators like Zimpher, news of ever-increasing enrollment at community colleges across the country is even better.

Historically, economic downturns have lent to increased enrollment at two-year institutions. In Saranac Lake, North Country Community College is looking at a substantial enrollment increase - with 30 percent more students enlisted for this fall compared to last year.

But Zimpher said there are other factors at play besides economics.

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