In the discussion with Obama and Duncan, college leaders also talked about expanding online classes to enable working adults to earn an affordable degree.
"Online courses are a vital piece of the postsecondary puzzle," said Shanna S. Jaggars, who's studied online education for the Community College Research Center of Columbia University's Teachers College. "There are a lot of nontraditional students who would find it very difficult to attend and complete college without the flexibility they offer."
[Read about the continued growth of online education.]
But community college students perform worse in online courses than in face-to-face classes, according to CCRC's study of 51,000 Washington state students from 2004 to 2009.
Although online students were better prepared academically than the average community college student, online students had an 82 percent completion rate, compared to 90 percent for students in traditional courses. Only 74 percent of remedial students completed an online class versus 85 percent for students in face-to-face courses.
A 2010 study by the same researchers found similar results for online learning in the Virginia community college system.
Many students need the flexibility of online classes, said Jaggars, co-author of the study. But online learning puts a greater burden on students to manage their time well, she said.
Despite the challenges, nearly all community colleges are expanding online courses while trying to improve course design.
Community colleges are the "unsung heroes" of the nation's education system, President Obama said in 2010 as he opened a White House community colleges summit chaired by Jill Biden, the vice president's wife and a longtime community college instructor. However, months earlier, he'd sacrificed $12 billion to improve community colleges graduation rates in order to pass his health care bill.
[Learn about scholarships for community college students.]
In a 2011 survey, state community college directors said their colleges don't have the funding to reach the president's 2020 goal: Obama wants the United States to lead the world in college graduates.
Joanne Jacobs writes Community College Spotlight for The Hechinger Report, an independent nonprofit education news site. Jacobs also blogs about K-12 education and is the author of Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.