White House Holds First Community College Summit

Agnes Constante

The first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, held on Oct. 5 and led by Second Lady Jill Biden, addressed the importance of community colleges in the educational pursuits of Americans and in developing the nation’s workforce.

More than 100 people attended the summit, including members of the president’s cabinet, administration officials, and people from businesses, organizations and post-secondary institutions throughout the nation. It was also streamed live on the White House website.

“For years I have said that community colleges are one of America’s best kept secrets,” Biden said. “Well, with the president of the United States shining a light on us, I think that secret is out.”

Biden has been an educator for nearly three decades and has spent the last 17 years teaching at community colleges in Delaware and Virginia. She currently teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.

She said community colleges are the largest, most affordable segment of the nation’s higher education system, as well as the one expanding most quickly.

These institutions provide opportunities to students who would otherwise not have such opportunities and equip Americans with the skills needed for future jobs.

“They’re opening doors for the middle class at a time when the mid class has seen so many doors close to them. As the president said, the nations that out-educate us today, will out-compete us tomorrow,” Biden said.

President Barack Obama also spoke about the crucial role of community colleges in improving the nation’s economy.

“These colleges are the unsung heroes of America’s education system,” he said. “They may not get the credit they deserve, they may not get the same resources as other schools, but they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.”

The president also said jobs in the coming years requiring at least an associate’s degree are anticipated to grow twice as fast as jobs that don’t require college.
“We will not fill those jobs or keep those jobs on our shores without community colleges,” he said.

In just a decade, America has fallen from first to ninth in the proportion of young adults with college degrees, which poses a threat to the nation’s position as the leading economy in the world.

In light of this, Obama aims to have America take the lead in having the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. He expects community colleges to play a big part in attaining this goal, and has proposed to have an additional 5 million people graduate with degrees and certificates by 2020.

The president also launched the American Graduation Initiative last year, where subsidies to banks for student loans were redirected toward community colleges.

Other steps taken to improve the availability of education to Americans include having made college more affordable. The Obama administration has increased student aid, simplified the loan application process, and limited loan payments to 10 percent of graduates’ salaries.

Another initiative launched to help with this goal is Skills for America’s Future, which focuses on creating partnerships between community colleges and businesses and non-profit organizations to connect students with jobs.

Obama said the goal to get the nation back on top also rests in the hands of students, teachers, and the businesses and organizations that partner up with colleges also have to do their part.

Melinda Gates, co-chair and co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, announced a five-year competitive $35-million grant program launched by the foundation called Completion by Design.

The program aims to redesign aspects of community colleges so that it is easier for students, many of whom also hold jobs and have family responsibilities, to complete their educational pursuits.

“Our investment is to . help students reach that ultimate goal, which is a degree or certificate that matters in the job market,” she said.

Gates added that among innovative steps community colleges have taken to ease the burden on students include streamlining the enrollment process and speeding up the remedial process by only teaching students the portions of subjects they need. She also suggested an increase in hybrid courses, so students are able to complete some of their coursework at home and won’t be required to drive to campus so often.

Penny Pritzker, a member of the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, went into further detail about the Skills for America’s Future initiative. She said five major corporations have already committed to the effort: Accenture, Gap Inc., McDonald’s, Pacific Gas and Electric, and United Technologies Corporation.

Following the opening remarks, Biden had the attendees break up into smaller groups to discuss six areas pertaining to the improvement of community colleges: industry partnerships, college completion, and pathways to baccalaureate degrees, financial aid, military and veterans programs, and community colleges of the future.

The summit concluded with brief presentations by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Pritzker, and others who earlier convened in groups to discuss areas of improvement for community colleges.