Obama Touts Community Colleges' Benefits

The two-year institutions play a key role in America's economic competitiveness, the president says.

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Community colleges are the "unsung heroes" of the American education system, President Obama said during a White House summit on community colleges on Tuesday—the first time such institutions have received such recognition at the presidential level, those involved in the event say—and they should play a critical role in achieving the administration's goal of leading the world in college graduation rates by 2020. 

Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden and herself a community college instructor of 17 years, led the one-day summit, which brought together community college faculty and students, policy leaders, and business and philanthropic groups to take a critical look at how the two-year institutions can better equip Americans with the skills that businesses and the economy need to compete in the 21st century. Almost half of all college students in the United States attend community college. 

"Community colleges are at the center of America's efforts to educate our way to a better economy," Dr. Biden , "and I know the power of community colleges to change lives," she added, relating her stories of students who have returned to school to improve their job prospects or who have gone on to work in high-growth industries such as healthcare or the lab tech field. 

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But community colleges today also have problems—more than 50 percent of community college students fail to transfer to a four-year school or receive an associate's degree within six years—and the summit examined ways to improve student retention and ease students' transition into the workforce or four-year institutions. Ideas on the table include new forms of industry partnerships with community colleges, better alignment of curricula with employers' needs, and making community college more affordable for low-income students. 

A new initiative also announced this week by the Obama administration aims to tackle many of those strategies head on. On Monday, President Obama announced the launch of "Skills for America's Future," a program run by the nonprofit Aspen Institute that is designed to essentially make it easier to connect community college students looking for jobs with businesses looking to hire. Funding for the effort will come from private sources and donors, not the administration, but Obama has already signed legislation this year that pumps $2 billion into community colleges. It's all part of the administration's broader call for community colleges to produce an additional 5 million graduates by 2020. 

Not everyone views community colleges as a surefire pathway to workforce training. In a report released Monday, a marketing firm working for the Coalition for Educational Success, an advocacy group representing for-profit colleges, took aim at community colleges. It argued that community colleges engage in "unsavory recruitment practices" and offer students "poorer-than-expected academic quality" and job placement. Jean Norris, managing partner of Norton Norris, the firm which produced the report, says there are plenty of other, better, educational paths to success for students.

"Community colleges are a viable option for many students," she says, but there is "great concern" over whether they can really make the achievements the administration is calling for. She questions what kind of new infrastructure is really needed to combat community colleges' low graduation rates, especially given that the majority of them are funded by real estate taxes. "What is this going to cost us?" she says. 

Peter Katopes, interim president at New York's LaGuardia Community College, doesn't see the administration's emphasis on community colleges as a swipe against four-year schools, but rather as recognition of community colleges' ability to provide the technicians, managers, nurses, and other skilled professionals that the country needs. "There probably is no better place than community colleges for this type of training," he says. 

Others laud the Obama's effort to shine a light on a sector of higher education that often gets short shrift, but they argue that graduation rates and numbers are getting too much attention while the learning that goes on inside the classroom isn't getting enough.