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White House Hosts First Summit on Community Colleges

The nation’s two-year higher education institutions had a rare moment in the spotlight on Tuesday at the first White House Summit on Community Colleges, during which President Barack Obama called them the “unsung heroes” of America’s education system.

“They may not get the credit they deserve. They may not get the same resources as other schools,” Obama said. “But they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.”

Community colleges, said Obama, enable young people to get an education without accumulating a lot of debt and people who are already in the workforce can use them to gain new skills to advance or change careers. More importantly, the president said he believes that they also are key to the country’s future as it fights to stay in a global competition to be a leader in growth industries.

The summit, led by Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden who has taught at community colleges for 17 years, focused on strategies to achieve Obama’s goal of an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020 and the critical role that two-year institutions will play in developing the U.S. work force of the future, when most jobs will require a postsecondary credential.

“But reaching the 2020 goal that I’ve set is not just going to depend on government. It also depends on educators and students doing their part. And it depends on business and not-for-profits working with colleges to connect students with jobs,” Obama said.

The president also announced private funding initiatives that will help boost community colleges’ efforts.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will fund a competitive grant program called Completion by Design that aims to improve community college graduation rates. The $35 million, five-year investment will go to three to five multicampus groups of community colleges in nine states serving the largest populations of low-income students.

Citing high number of students who enter community colleges without earning a certificate or degree within a reasonable period, if at all, Melinda Gates said society must make sure that all of the incentives are in place to ensure complete a degree or certificate program or even move onto a four-year institution.

“Our investment is to help community colleges redesign every aspect of the student experience to help students reach that ultimate goal, which is a degree or certificate that matters in the job market,” said Gates.

Another initiative announced was the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which will be funded by the Aspen Institute, the Joyce and Lumina foundations and the charitable foundations run by Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. The $1 million annual prize will reward institutions that demonstrate exceptional results in the areas of graduation and work-force success.

Following the opening session, the approximate 150 summit attendees divided into breakout sessions that focused on the importance of community colleges to veterans and military families; industry partnerships; financial aid; pathways to baccalaureate degrees; and community colleges of the future.

During the financial aid session, the group discussed both the financial advantages of a community college education, which allows students to get a quality experience at the fraction of what it would cost to do the first two years at a four-year institution, as well as the need for community colleges to do a better job of providing students with information on federal aid options that can lower their debt obligations.

“The fact that private (financial) aid hasn’t gone down means that there needs to be a much more clear method of telling students what is out there,” said Jean Chatsky, financial editor for the ‘Today Show’. “How do you get [financial aid]? Letting families know what is available. These are the steps. That is the key.”

The veterans and military families session focused on the types of services veterans need and how to ease the transition from active service to community college. Many veterans entered the military because they believe they’d be more successful there than in college, and need help overcoming the stigma of being unprepared to enter college immediately following high school. One veteran who participated in the session said former military personnel need some sort of on-campus support group to give them a better sense of belonging and access to people with shared experiences.

“I learned a lot of from some of the veterans who were there and from Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that is going to be immediately useful when I get back,” said Dr. Constance M. Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District.

In fact, she and a group of other college presidents planned to spend Tuesday evening figuring out how they can share best practices and what they learned at the summit with other community college leaders who were unable to participate in the event.

“The important thing now is to take what we’ve learned and the start of this conversation and turn it into something completely practical,” Carroll said. “That’s what’ I’m looking forward to.”

Dr. Cheryl Hyman, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, also felt reenergized by the summit, she said.

“It created the dialogue that needs to take place between all of the stakeholders — the community and businesses—the problems we face will require everybody working together on solutions,” said Hyman, who participated in the industry session. “Even in a recession, there are critical business needs. There are jobs out there and employers who have business needs. We all need to figure out how to match up our curriculums with the needs of those work forces and fill those jobs.”

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