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Community College Summit to Highlight Initiatives, Promote New Ideas

Coming on the eve of today’s White House community college summit, the Obama Administration has announced a new program that will link top companies with community colleges in hopes of ramping up America’s job skills.

The partnership plan called “Skills for America’s Future” is a key recommendation of President Barack Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which met Monday with the president at the White House.

Obama said the plan aims to improve industry partnerships with community colleges and build a nationwide network to maximize workforce development.

“We want to make it easier to join students looking for jobs with businesses looking to hire,” Obama said in a White House fact sheet. “We want to put community colleges and employers together to create programs that match curricula in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom.”

The “Skills for America’s Future” announcement was the first such proclamation coinciding with the White House summit on community colleges led by Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden. Dr. Biden is a longtime community college teacher.

Summit Convenes With College Leaders  

Earlier this year, Obama asked Dr. Biden to host a fall conference “to provide an opportunity for community college leaders, students, education experts and business leaders to share innovative ways to educate our way to a better economy.” Biden teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College.

It was heartening news for leaders of the nation’s two-year institutions and their advocates, who felt the sting of Congress stripping the $10 billion proposed for community colleges from the American Graduation Initiative, which aims to boost college graduation by 5 million by 2020.

There are a number of issues community college leaders and boosters hope will be on the White House’s radar, from ways the federal government can facilitate improvement in student success to providing incentive funding for community college innovation.

Still, as the national unemployment rate hovers at about 10 percent, enrollment at community colleges is surging. According to Dr. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, enrollment has increased 17 percent nationwide and some institutions have experienced a 50 percent increase.

“We should be focusing on college completion and what we can do to help the colleges help their students, particularly when state budgets are being cut and community colleges are fighting to meet demand with decreased funding and increased student enrollment,” Boggs says. “How can we get the resources we need to serve the students in their community?”

Theresa Tena, director of fiscal policy for the Community College League of California, says any discussion about improving completion rates should include guidance from the administration about how to achieve that goal.

“The president has targeted certain numbers and we’re using that to identify goals for institutions, but we’d like information on how that breaks out state by state and other information on the states’ responsibility in setting that high bar for achievement,” Tena says.

Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, says there should be some focus on how the federal government can invest in developing and disseminating research on the quality of education that community colleges provide.

“We need to know more about which community colleges are most successful in helping students earn degrees and get good jobs. Their mission is explicitly vocational, but we don’t know which are best at helping students get a job and succeed in a career,” Carey says. He also says such an effort should include input and participation from the business community, particularly because so many unemployed people will likely have to seek employment in a different industry or discipline that requires additional training and skills.

“Community colleges are a principal means of providing that training, which makes this a very opportune time to be talking about them,” Carey says. “There are now more workers than jobs but we could have the opposite problem when the economy peaks again and (we) need to train people for when those jobs are open.”

Prince George’s Community College President Charlene Dukes is attending the summit and says there should be some exploration of how the federal government can work with states to increase funding so they can accommodate the enrollment increases schools like hers are experiencing. Students who during better economic times would have gone to a four-year institution are choosing community colleges. She says there needs to be some consideration of the resulting need to invest in new construction and the renovation of older buildings.

Dr. Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor for the Connecticut Community College System, wants the summit to address achievement gaps, particularly for low-income and minority students who often arrive unprepared, and help schools in addressing those needs.

Adds Dr. George Gabriel, vice president for institutional research, planning, and assessment at NOVA: “We have a good handle on the access part, but at this and many other institutions, when it comes to student success, I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job. A large number of students do not leave us with what they came here for — a degree or the ability to transfer to a four-year institution or well-prepared for the job market. We do a good job but could do much better at improving student success.”

But doing so requires innovative changes that can often be costly, and Gabriel would like there to be some discussion at the summit on how the federal government can provide funding and incentives for innovation. NOVA, for example, will roll out a new remedial math course that has proven successful elsewhere.

“We cannot keep doing what we did  (decades ago) because the student population learns and thinks and does everything  different,” Gabriel says.

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