Scholars Tout Community College Revitalization

WASHINGTON — With the Obama administration seeking to boost U.S. education spending in its latest budget proposals, the Center for American Progress released three research papers Wednesday detailing how the nation’s community colleges can help lead the revitalization of U.S. postsecondary education and reinvigorate American work-force development for the 21st century. 

During a community college forum Wednesday at which the papers’ authors presented their findings, John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, said the “Obama administration recognizes the potential for community colleges to help prepare our work force of the future.” He added that the administration’s proposed American Graduation Initiative and recommendations in the center’s three papers “can spur” the changes that would be necessary to see dramatic improvements in U.S. community colleges. 

“With the American Graduation Initiative, the administration is poised to invest more than $12 billion in the nation’s community colleges. This investment is an opportunity for community colleges to innovate their education models, change internal practices and build partnerships with regional economic growth initiatives,” said Podesta, a former White House Chief of Staff under President Bill Clinton. 

Joining the authors during the forum at the progressive Washington think tank were Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph Biden and a community college professor, and Dr. Brenda Dann-Messier, the Education Department assistant secretary for vocational and adult education.

“As we know, the nations that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow,” Jill Biden told the forum audience of about 70 people. “Of students who graduate from high school and go on to college, only 40 percent graduate within six years. We know we can do better. And I am certain that our community colleges will play a critical role in improving that number. Today, community colleges are the largest sector of our nation’s higher education system, serving 6 million students.”

Written by scholars whose studies were commissioned by the Center for American Progress (CAP), the three papers are: “Re-imagining Community Colleges in the 21st Century: A Student-Centered Approach to Higher Education,” by Dr. Brian Pusser and Dr. John Levin; “Strong Students, Strong Workers: Models for Student Success through Workforce Development and Community College Partnerships,” by Dr. Harry W. Holzer and Dr. Demetra Nightingale; and “Training Tomorrow’s Workforce: Community College and Apprenticeship as Collaborative Routes to Rewarding Careers,” by Dr. Robert I. Lerman.

Lerman, an economics professor at American University, discussed how his research paper advocates that community colleges act to increase the availability of apprenticeship programs. Such programs are largely financed by the employers who participate in them and they provide mentorship in addition to instruction to individual students, according to Lerman.

Commenting on Lerman’s paper as a forum discussant, Dr. Susan Schurman, dean of the University College Community at Rutgers University, largely agreed with Lerman’s assessment that community college partnerships with apprenticeship programs yield mutually beneficial results for students, schools, and employers.

“College needs to look more like apprenticeship and apprenticeship needs to look more like college,” Schurman said.