Whenever President Obama talks about a college education, you know there’s a pony in there for somebody: more federal grants for colleges, more student loans.

One of the president’s favorite themes is investing in community colleges. Indeed, his new budget contains an $8 billion for a program entitled “Community College to Career Fund.” The grants would help colleges set up career centers to train students in such fields as health care or high tech, and—of course—for jobs in “green” industries.

As IWF friend Charlotte Allen points out in a piece headlined “Is Investing in Community Colleges a Good Idea?” on the Minding the Campus website, the money is bound to look good to colleges, even though some of it will go to states to recruit companies to participate.

Charlotte is not too sanguine about the program, however:

There is a problem, however: community colleges have an admirable goal of providing second-chance education to young people who either performed too poorly in high school to get admitted to a conventional four-year college or can't afford four-year-school tuition. But they have a poor track record in keeping those students around until graduation with any sort of degree or certificate.

The retention figures are not encouraging. According to the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, only 12 percent of community-college students earn an associate degree within the standard two years.  

Maybe the Obama administration hopes that that, enticed by training programs, more students will remain in school. But this is an unrealistic hope. The problems these students face in trying to complete their schooling began long ago:

About two-thirds of their entering students must first pass remedial math and English courses before they can qualify to take a single course for college credit–and most never succeed in passing those elementary classes. You can blame urban America's failed K-12 system, or you can conclude that substantial numbers of young Americans lack the cognitive ability to succeed in college, but the fact remains that community colleges, with their bulging populations of directionless and under-performing students, may not be the best settings in which to produce a skilled workforce.

Charlotte adds that the kinds of jobs that will be available in the next few years will the kinds that require the math and reading skills community college kids are most likely to lack.

The $8 billion may be helpful politically to the president, persuading people he is doing something about jobs. But it’s not likely to do much in reality. However, Charlotte found some good community college vocational programs—they won't cost the taxpayer a dime, and and wouldn’t you just know, they are nothing like what the president has in mind.

Charlotte looked at community college vocational training programs and found that the successful ones tend to be small operations, utilize modest grants from businesses, and put an emphasis on reading and math skills. At the end, students who pass get a nationally-recognized certificate attesting to their skills. And this program works:

The program's retention rate (95 percent) and job-placement rate (100 percent) were stellar–but it was also a small, highly focused program with only 50 students per cohort. The obvious question is: can that sort of success be replicated on a large scale with widely varying students, faculty, and educational standards–along with the potential for waste that a spigot of federal dollars always presents?

The good news is that the president’s budget has no chance of passing.

The bad news is that it reflects this administration's approach to improving education—or maybe it is just a cynical attempt to buy votes.