Community colleges are colleges, too. While it may be easy to forget that fact at a large research university, President Barack Obama recently announced a plan that recognizes the importance of community colleges. He’s proposing a 10-year, $12-billion investment in community colleges to improve their ability to educate America’s workforce. The plan, called the American Graduation Initiative, sends a message from the Obama administration that it hasn’t forgotten about those for whom a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university isn’t a realistic possibility. It’s Congress’s job to reinforce Obama’s admirable commitment to community colleges by passing the initiative.

Obama announced the initiative on Tuesday at Macomb Community College in the nearby Detroit suburb of Warren, a blue-collar town hit hard by the recent economic meltdown. Obama proposed a number of methods that would improve community colleges nationwide by helping them provide online courses and modernize facilities. The AGI pledges to make earning an associate’s degree easier. It encourages merit-based scholarships and classes that work around full-time schedules. Obama’s goal is an additional 5 million associate degrees by 2020. The AGI will be funded by an elimination of subsidies the federal government pays to banks that run student loan programs, which Obama proposed in April.

Now it’s Congress’s turn to follow Obama’s initiative and make it happen — because Obama was right when he said that jobs requiring a college degree would grow faster than jobs that don’t. This is especially true for Michigan. As the state loses its manufacturing base, its future will depend on job growth in fields that require college degrees.

But getting a college degree to enter a new profession isn’t easy for workers who’ve already been in the manufacturing workforce for years and can’t afford to go to school full time. And it isn’t easy for students whose families have been hit hard by the economic downturn and can’t afford a four-year degree. With college tuition rising across the country, the need for quality community colleges is greater than ever. Community colleges could offer affordable schooling for people who need it — and Obama’s AGI could drastically improve the quality of this affordable education.

Community colleges provide essential educational opportunities and ensure that our workforce can change with the demand for jobs. And improving the accessibility of community colleges will help this happen. Giving tools for community colleges to design programs around work schedules and provide online courses will help students already in the workforce. The option to train for a job in a high-growth field while maintaining a full-time job will entice more to take advantage of this opportunity. And since the federal government is paying for these improvements, community colleges will be able to keep their tuition low — something that all universities need to do better.

Community colleges provide an education for people who can’t afford a four-year college education. Obama’s new plan to bolster such important institutions could help bring the nation out of this economic slump, and Congress should ensure this becomes reality.

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