A Degree of Security

Is the government recruiting community college students for the war on terror?

By Leah Samuel Sep 21, 2005

Young, poor people of color who signed up with the U.S. military to get college money ended up fighting in Iraq. Meanwhile, their peers back home who take the community college route to higher education may also end up fighting the “war on terror.”

Money problems for community colleges, as well as their students, are forcing both to buy into what can only be called “homeland security education.” The federal government is offering colleges a way to survive and the students a way to get educated: money specifically earmarked for the war on terror.

This year’s federal budget includes more than $4 billion for homeland security research and development. The Department of Homeland Security is offering $64 million directly to colleges and universities that will develop anti-terrorism programs.

In a Squeeze for Money

Community colleges depend primarily on states for their funding, but states get part of their funds from the federal government. At the end of April, the U.S. House and Senate voted to cut the total education budget by $5.5 billion, as recommended in President Bush’s budget proposal for 2006. Only five percent of community colleges’ financial support comes through federal grants. But now, even that is in jeopardy. For community colleges, the “Strengthening Institutions Program”—Title III-A of the Higher Education Act—provides funds to institutions that have few resources and serve high proportions of low-income students and “historically underrepresented” populations. Grants from this program help community colleges improve their educational programs and related services. 

But institutions must compete for money from the program, which currently totals $81.3 million. Proposed legislation in Congress would allow for-profit schools to compete with nonprofit community colleges for these and other dollars, including those coming through the federal Pell Grant and student loan programs. As a result, community colleges are scrambling for a way to stay afloat.

Money has increasingly become an issue for students themselves. Four-year public universities cost an average of $5,132 a year, according to statistics from the College Board. Last year, the Department of Education reduced the federal Pell Grant program by requiring families to show a higher degree of need. Affirmative action programs, and the financial aid that often comes with them, are disappearing. Consequently, the two-year, community college option, with an average annual cost of $2,076, is becoming the predominant one for poor students of color. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), of all college students nationally, 56 percent of Latinos, 48 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders, 57 percent of Native Americans and 47 percent of Blacks are attending community colleges.

Recruiting Schools and Students

Community colleges have responded to the Department of Homeland Security offer by repositioning themselves as the training ground for “first responders”—the police officers, firefighters, emergency workers and health professionals expected to arrive first on the scene after a terrorist attack. “We use the term ‘homeland security’ rather broadly,” admits Laurie Quarles, Legislative Associate for the AACC. “Some of our community colleges have successfully gotten money to develop their programs.”

The AACC insists that community colleges are responding not to a changing funding environment but to the need for trained professionals to assist in preventing and recovering from terrorist attacks. “Our role is that we have to anticipate the current and projected needs of the community, whether or not there is new funding coming,” Quarles says.

Democrats, too, are jumping on this trend. In March 2004, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed the role of community colleges in training students for homeland security-related jobs. At Monroe Community College in New York, Clinton toured the school’s Public Safety Training Center.

“Most places have a community college,” she said at a press conference. “The institution, the infrastructure is already in place, and most community colleges perform the training for law enforcement, criminal justice, firefighting already. Yet, when it comes to figuring out how to most efficiently prepare our homeland security forces, there aren’t many places that are looking first and foremost to their community colleges. And I think that’s a mistake.”

Indeed, the courses and curriculum that fall under homeland security are not new. Monroe Community College, for example, has been training police and fire safety officers for more than 30 years. However, it created its Homeland Security Management Institute in December 2003.

By repackaging their health care, law enforcement and other course programs under the broad category of “homeland security,” community colleges can assure themselves of money through direct government programs and loans and grants to students.

For students, the Department of Homeland Security is offering stipends of $1,000 a month during the school year, or $5,000 for the summer, for course programs related to homeland security. Students at community colleges can realize their dreams of attending four-year institutions through one of these scholarships. Recipients of the scholarships must, according to the application form, “indicate a willingness to accept, after graduation, competitive employment offers from DHS, state and local security offices, DHS-affiliated Federal laboratories, or DHS-related research staff positions.”

It remains unclear whether young, poor people of color are specifically being steered into homeland security courses, as they have been into the military war on terror. Quarles points out that there are recruitment efforts.

“Many of [the colleges] put out brochures about what they have,” she says. “They really make an effort to reach those students who might not have thought about going to college.” She adds that some community colleges are starting attempts to attract students to their homeland security programs, but concedes that, “I don’t know how aggressive they are.”

The DHS scholarship program excludes those with outstanding military service commitments, who have already earned a bachelor’s degree or who plan to study abroad.

There has been resistance to the growth of homeland security training at community colleges. In December 2004, students and faculty members at the New York’s Borough of Manhattan Community College demanded that the school abandon plans for a certificate program in security management. They viewed it as an endorsement of the Bush administration’s Department of Homeland Security. Members of student government leafleted an administrative meeting with a flyer titled, “Stop BMCC ‘Homeland’ Repression Program Now!” The flyer stated concerns that, among other things, a homeland security program at the college “will intimidate and drive away many present and potential students, especially immigrants.”

Another concern is that students studying homeland security may not find jobs. In Michigan, Lansing Community College instructor Charles Bogle fears that community college students are being steered away from programs that will allow them more flexibility in their careers. “Michigan community colleges will no doubt have to get their own homeland security departments in order to compete,” he wrote in 2003. “But what will our working class students do when, after having received a program degree or certificate in a defunct or saturated field, they are forced to compete with a graduate of a good liberal arts college for a job that requires an education rather than training?”

Students and activists can expect to see community colleges become the newest battlefield in the war on terror.