Save Our Community Colleges Before It’s Too Late

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“I have always said community colleges were one of America’s best-kept secrets,” Dr. Jill Biden, the second lady of the United States and a long-time community college instructor, said yesterday as she opened the first White House Summit on Community Colleges. “Today’s summit shows that is no longer the case.”

I was invited not as a member of the press, but to participate with roughly 120 college presidents from both community colleges and four-year schools like Cornell; cabinet members (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis); researchers (Harvard); leaders from corporate America (McDonald’s); the Small Business Administration; the National Endowment for the Humanities and many, many others.

President Obama has a goal of creating the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by the end of 2020. As Melinda Gates, co-founder with her husband of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said from the podium yesterday, that was where it was when she was a child. Today, we’re twelfth. Getting the graduation rate up at community colleges, which now enroll 43 percent of all college students but only graduate about a quarter of those who enroll, is key to making that goal a reality.

To that end, the Gates Foundation announced that $35 million in grants will be awarded over the next 3 to 5 years to improve college graduation rates. The Aspen Institute announced a new $1 million annual prize to reward outstanding community college excellence. And President Obama announced “Skills for America’s Future,” a public-private partnership between community colleges, companies including Gap, PG&E, McDonald’s and others, and labor unions, to ensure that community college grads not only get their degrees but get the skills the workforce can put to use immediately.

Even with those important initiatives, achieving the president’s goal of 5 million more community college graduates by 2020 will be a challenge.  How to get there was on the afternoon agenda as we were divided into working groups and asked to discuss industry-community college partnerships, increasing community college completion, the importance of community colleges to veterans and – for me – financial aid.

These are all tough topics. In the financial aid section, as I’m sure in all of the others, our list of challenges was a mile long: The FAFSA form is complicated, non-traditional students lose Pell Grant funds by working too many hours (which of course they have to do to support their families), there is a severe lack of work-study jobs at many community colleges, and community college students don’t know what sort of aid is available. But then, from one end of the table, a glimmer of hope. At a community college in Connecticut, the financial aid process has gone virtual – to amazing results. The number of students staying in school has soared as a result, so has the number obtaining degrees and the number of Pell Grants awarded.

After the breakouts, the big group reconvened and it became clear that this glimmer of hope – this aha sort of solution – had reared its head in every one of the small sessions. That’s what happens when you get smart people together and ask them to spend the day focused on a single problem. (Even a single problem with many tentacles.) So I want to throw it out to the smart wOwers who convene here on a daily basis: Think about the community colleges in your area and the students you know who attend them. What could be done to help them keep their students? What could be done to help students stay in school? How can we give this no-longer secret part of the American educational system a boost? Weigh in here. Or go to whitehouse.gov/communitycollege and send your feedback directly to Dr. Biden herself. I’m sure she and her staff would love to hear it.

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