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.

“You don’t see China slashing education by 20 percent right now,” he said. “You don’t see India slashing education right now. … There is a better way for us to do this.”

The national attention garnered by the White House summit, Biden said, was a victory for two-year colleges that aren’t often recognized by federal officials.

“I often say that community colleges are America’s best-kept secret,” she said. “With the president of the United States shining a light on us, I think that secret is out.”

A poll conducted last month by market research company Abt SRBI Inc. showed overall support for community colleges. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said the quality of education at community colleges is excellent or good.

When asked whether colleges prepare students for the work force, 62 percent said yes for community colleges and 68 percent said yes for four-year schools. Seventy-one percent said it’s sometimes better for students to pursue a diploma or certificate from a two-year school than aim to enter a four-year college.

Melinda Gates spoke to educators and community college officials during the summit’s opening session, highlighting two-year school’s use of online classes to make education accessible for non-traditional students.

Hybrid courses, in which students do some class work online and some in the classroom, allow students to “make progress toward their credential while they’re holding down a job,” she said.

Community colleges “are hidden gems of our society,” Gates said, adding that national conversations about improvements to higher education too often focus on elite four-year universities. “And in this country, hard work is supposed to pay off.”

Biden called community colleges “uniquely American,” because “anyone who walks through the door is one step closer to the American dream.”

Obama joked that Biden was not “playing hooky” from her job as English professor at Northern Virginia Community College and was only able to attend the White House summit after asking for a day off. Biden, he said, could be seen grading papers between TV interviews in the morning.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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