Obama: Community colleges central to economic recovery

Obama spoke to more than 100 community college officials at the White House.
Obama spoke to more than 100 community college officials at the White House. (Courtesy White House photographer Pete Souza)

During an Oct. 5 White House summit, Obama administration officials and community college leaders discussed ways to position two-year colleges as training hubs that could be instrumental in the country’s economic recovery. And technology, they said, would be a centerpiece to enrolling more students and boosting completion rates.

The gathering of more than 100 community college decision makers from across the country was the White House’s first-ever Summit on Community Colleges, where top federal officials lauded two-year colleges as a bridge to jobs and four-year universities, and a way to lead the world in college graduates by 2020.

The Community College Summit was held 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.

The summit was led by Second Lady Jill Biden, an educator for almost 30 years. Education Secretary Arne Duncan emphasized that fiscal support and sustained attention on two-year schools would be important to the administration’s efforts to improve the slumping economy.

“We’ve never had this kind of attention at the White House nationally on community colleges,” Duncan said. “I think folks feel the sense that there’s never been a greater spotlight, never been a greater sense of urgency and opportunity. … We cannot educate our way to a better economy without community colleges.”

Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said providing reliable web platforms for students to enroll in community colleges, communicate with instructors, and understand what classes they need and if they’ll transfer to a four-year institution would be key for two-year schools as Americans enroll at record numbers.

“We need to meet students where they are,” Barnes said, referring to the convenience of online learning for students who have jobs and families.

Ceci Rouse, a White House economic advisor, said in a summit breakout session that community college officials might have found an answer to a lingering problem in higher education: students’ difficulty in finding financial aid opportunities.

Rouse said colleges that have launched virtual financial aid offices—web sites that guide students through the often-tricky application process—have seen spikes in applicants and Pell Grant recipients.

“We have a really nice solution for what we see as a really systemic problem,” she said.

Chicago City Colleges Chancellor Cheryl Hyman said that despite the demand for higher education in the slumping job market, community colleges would be challenged to prepare prospective students who haven’t been in a classroom since high school.

“I’m losing 54 percent of my credential-seeking students in the first six months,” Hyman said during a breakout session on community colleges’ relationships with local businesses. She added that about nine in 10 Chicago City College students need some kind of remedial training before they can take credit-bearing courses.

President Obama spoke at the summit, and panned a Republican plan that would return the education budget to its 2008 level, essentially cutting education spending by about 20 percent.

“That’s like unilaterally disarming our troops right as they head to the front lines,” Obama said of education budget cuts. “We are in a fight for our future,” he added, and community colleges are crucial to boosting degrees and competing with countries that are leading in higher-education attainment.

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