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Obama Calls Community Colleges 'Key to the Future'

Community colleges are crucial to assuring that America has the highly skilled workforce needed in the global competition for jobs, President Obama told education, business, and policy leaders attending the opening session of the White House Summit on Community Colleges on Tuesday.

"Community colleges are not just the key to the future of their students. They are one of the keys to the future of our economy," the president said.

Anyone with a desire to learn and grow can find opportunity at community colleges, including single parents, returning soldiers, and aspiring entrepreneurs, Obama said. "Community colleges are the unsung heroes of the American education system," he said. "They may not get the credit they deserve or the same resources as other schools but they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and better life."

Obama criticized what he said were GOP efforts to cut education spending. Budget reductions in education would be like disarming the troops as they head for the front lines, he said. "We can't accept less investment in education," he said.

Looking back to the country's commitment to education, Obama praised the funding of land grant universities and the G.I. Bill, but added that "in recent years, we've failed to live up to this legacy, especially in higher education."

Organizers of the summit say reaching the president's goal of regaining the global lead in the proportion of college graduates by 2020 it will take five million more graduates from community colleges and will require the efforts of educators, students, businesses, and non-profits working with colleges, along with government.

WHSummitBlog_Melinda.JPGJill Biden, a community college instructor and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, hosted the summit. Community colleges are at the center of building the new economy and are the fastest-growing, most affordable segment of higher education, she said.

"Community colleges are one of America's best-kept secrets. With the president shining the light on us, the secret is out," said Biden.

Melinda Gates, who yesterday announced a $34.8 million Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant competition for community colleges, said that after years of investing in K-12 education, the foundation became interested in supporting the transition to higher education. With a growing number of "non-traditional" students, community colleges give low-income, minority, and working students opportunity, she said.

In the afternoon, the attendees were scheduled to split into session to discuss industry partnerships, college completion, pathways to degrees, financial aid, military and veterans, and community colleges of the future. Noting her work as a teacher, Biden concluded: "Don't think you'll leave without homework."

UPDATE (5:50 p.m.): In the closing session of the summit, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that for all the success stories, low completion rates at community colleges need to be improved. "We have to get a lot better at what we do," said Duncan. "We have to find ways to be creative."

Duncan said there has been discussion that the term "non-traditional" student is probably a misnomer since non-traditional students are the new norm. A better alternative might be "21st century" student, suggested Duncan. He raised the question as to whether community colleges were set up to deal with a student who might be a 28-year-old mother with three children who is working and going to school. Some places are, he said, while some might not be.

At a time of declining resources and increased challenges, Duncan said there is a need for institutions to share best practices through a clearinghouse, Web site, or other avenue.

After a working group session about connections between community colleges and industry, Penny Pritzker, of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said partnerships worked best when classes were delivered at flexible times, involved apprenticeships and a clear pathway to a career, and included support from cities and states. The members of group recommended more money to build capacity for skills-training and the better streamlining of credit transfer.

But, Pritzker said, "It's not all about money." Community colleges would like more "mindshare" with business leaders in the community about how to be more relevant and rethink how they deliver their product, she said. There is a feeling that community colleges are "undervalued," said Pritzker.

A group that discussed college completion said that the average of five years to complete an associate's degree makes time an enemy for students. Students need to understand the value of actually securing community college credentials, and there needs to be more attention to improved professional development for community college instructors, in the group's view. The group recommended that developmental education use more technology to tailor basic skills-training to the needs of the students and to integrate the training into academic courses.

Paying for college is a big barrier for many community college students. The participants in the financial-aid breakout session discussed not only the tuition, but also the fees and child care expenses that many students face. It was suggested that the federal government rethink the work disincentive in awarding Pell Grants, consider ways to consolidate loan forms, and provide other forms of financial aid such as transportation and family support services. Providing virtual financial aid services was one idea, with Connecticut named as an example of best practices in that area.

Undersecretary of Education Martha J. Kanter discussed the importance of helping community colleges build pathways to bachelor's degrees. She said students often face too many choices and need more consistent advice, clarity about credit hours, and solid information about transfer policies.

Finally, Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, said that community colleges of the 21st century need to rethink their culture. Her group recommended building better networks with alumni, leveraging technology, improving retention, and giving faculty incentives to innovate.

Not discussed today: the link between the K-12 system and community colleges. Improving access, smoothing the transition, and ramping up college readiness in high school did not make onto the radar of the summit.

In concluding the day, Biden announced that next year there would be a virtual community college summit held to continue the conversation.

Photo: Melinda Gates, right, is introduced by Jill Biden during the White House Summit on Community Colleges. —Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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