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Obama unveils plan to invest in community colleges

The president says he intends to inject $12 billion into the nation's two-year schools over the next 10 years to help struggling workers prepare for new careers.

July 15, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WARREN, MICH. — With unemployment continuing to climb, President Obama on Tuesday unveiled a plan to pump $12 billion into the nation's community colleges over the next 10 years to help struggling workers prepare for new careers, saying a better-educated workforce was crucial to long-term prosperity.

"Time and again, when we have placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result -- by tapping the incredible innovative and generative potential of a skilled American workforce," Obama said.

In his appearance here at Macomb Community College and earlier in the day in Washington, Obama sought to draw a direct connection between recovery from the economic crisis and a broad array of administration initiatives, including education, the stimulus package and overhauling the healthcare system.

Before flying to Michigan, Obama acknowledged that unemployment might "tick up for several months," but he said his prescriptions, taken together, offered the best hope for creating jobs.

And here, in a state where the jobless rate tops 14% compared with the national average of 9.5%, the president pointed to the healthcare debate raging in Congress and said stabilizing medical costs was crucial to restoring prosperity.

"Now is the time to build a firmer, stronger foundation for growth that will not only withstand future economic storms, but that will help us thrive," he said on the Macomb campus. "To build that foundation, we have to slow the growth of healthcare costs that are driving us into debt."

He took a barely veiled shot at Republicans, who were in power when the recession began but who have relentlessly attacked his recovery plans.

"I love these folks who helped get us in this mess and then suddenly say, well, this is Obama's economy. That's fine. Give it to me," the president said. "My job is to solve problems, not to stand on the sidelines and harp and gripe."

Obama added: "The hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won't be coming back. They are casualties of a changing economy."

He argued that community colleges could play an important role in helping displaced workers build new careers, but that they needed more resources at a time when state and local budget problems could lead to capped enrollments and fewer course offerings.

Obama's education plan would provide funds for new construction, online education and competitive grants.

About 6 million people are enrolled in community colleges in the U.S., but nearly half fail to complete degree and certificate programs, according to government figures.

The administration seeks to boost the number of graduates by 5 million over the next decade.

Obama, apparently mindful of polls showing many Americans are worried about the steep rise in government spending to combat the recession, noted that the school aid "isn't adding to the deficit."

Rather, he said, the money will come from ending subsidies to banks and private student loan companies.

Obama's appearance here came as Republicans pounded the argument that his economic policies were faltering. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) held a news conference Tuesday timed with the president's visit to criticize his performance.

"Look, the stimulus bill hasn't worked, and it was sold as something that had to be done immediately, that would create jobs immediately, that it would have an immediate effect," Camp said.

Fighting back, the Democratic National Committee alerted reporters to a news release issued by the congressman's office in April touting a $12.7-million grant for a local airport -- money that was part of the stimulus program. In the release, Camp said the project would "stimulate the area's economy, help create new long-term job growth for the region and improve the airport experience for area travelers."

After leaving Michigan, Obama flew to St. Louis to throw out the first pitch at Major League Baseball's All-Star game.

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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