Jill Biden will headline the White House's first-ever summit focusing on community college.

Jill Biden will headline the White House's first-ever summit focusing on community colleges.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will announce a $35 million competitive grant program during the White House’s first Community College Summit, and two major banks will join philanthropic groups to kick off a $1 million prize for officials from education, business, and public service who lead reform efforts.

The first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, hosted by longtime educator and Second Lady Jill Biden, will bring together leaders from education and labor to discuss how two-year schools can help train workers and boost the struggling economy, according to a White House announcement.

The Gates Foundation will continue its giving to educational causes with a grant program targeting groups of community colleges with low-income students in nine states.

The program, called Completion by Design, will be available to colleges in North Carolina, New York, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, California, Arizona, Texas, and Washington.

Charitable branches of JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America will join philanthropic organizations the Aspen Institute and the Joyce and Lumina Foundations to award an annual $1 million prize to educational leaders who “[accelerate] the spread of successful practices” and improve community college completion rates.

The award is not limited to those in education, according to an Oct. 5 announcement. Public officials and business leaders also will be eligible.

The Community College Summit comes a day after President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board announced its Skills for America’s Future program, which aims to connect businesses with community colleges to help better match workers with jobs during the economic recovery and beyond.

“From our position, community colleges are the foundation of our public workforce system,” Assistant Secretary of Labor Jane Oats said during an Oct. 4 conference call with reporters. “They are the access points for students of all ages. … In weeks or months, they can [provide] the best trained workers possible” for local businesses looking to hire.

Courtney O’Donnell, Biden’s spokeswoman, said that helping credentialed students find jobs at businesses searching for qualified applicants would be a focus of the White House’s Summit on Community Colleges.

“We want to make sure [students’] hurdles are lowered so they can meet their goals,” she said.

The Obama administration has provided massive funding programs for community colleges over the past year, including the $2 billion Community College and Career Training initiative, and $500 million to help two-year colleges bolster completion rates.

But the $2 billion was supposed to be $10 billion in federal money for job training, building projects, and initiatives to graduate more students.

By the time an overhaul of the federal student loan program had made its way through Congress, all that remained for community colleges was $2 billion over four years for job training.

Obama has set a goal of 5 million more community college graduates and certificate-holders by 2020, part of broader push for the U.S. to again lead the world in number of college graduates.

The White House on Oct. 4 described “Skills for America’s Future” as an industry-led initiative to “dramatically improve” work force training partnerships with community colleges, paid for mostly by the participating companies.

The Gap Inc., for example, said it would expand community college partnerships in seven metro areas, including in-store job shadowing, interview and leadership training, and scholarships. The San Francisco-based company said it expects to hire up to 1,200 community college students in 2011, or five percent of its annual hiring.

Other participating employers are Accenture, McDonald’s, United Technologies, and P.G.&E.

Maureen Conway, executive director of the economic opportunities program at the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that will run the program, said navigating the system for matching training to jobs can be difficult for both students and small employers, and some larger companies have not worked with colleges.

“What’s wrong is, students come in and are falling through the cracks a bit and it’s not always clear what the right path is,” she said. “Courses aren’t always clearly connected to what’s going on in the local labor market.”

George Boggs, outgoing president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said he welcomes the attention, but warned that colleges are under pressure on many fronts. Community colleges are short of cash, jammed with laid-off workers and students who in better times would attend four-year schools, and spending heavily on remedial education for students ill-prepared for college.

“It’s a very difficult time for them and hard to focus on things such as reaching out to local business and industry,” Boggs said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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