The first White House Summit on Community Colleges was held on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., chaired by Dr. Jill Biden, a community college professor of 17 years and wife of Vice President Joe Biden. The goal of the summit as detailed by the White House, was to bring community college, philanthropy, association, corporate, and policy leaders, and students together “to discuss how community colleges can help meet the job training and education needs of the nation’s evolving workforce, as well as the critical role these institutions play in achieving the President’s goal to lead the world with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.” Once first in world rankings for number of adults with postsecondary degrees, the U.S. is now 12th.
The administration’s spotlight on community colleges and higher education is part of a larger focus on rebuilding the nation’s economy and remaining competitive in the global marketplace. Citing the expansion of education and job training as one of the main recommendations of his economic recovery advisory board, Obama stated, “We are in a fight for the future, a fight that depends on education.” Though little was covered during the summit regarding concrete policy initiatives, the President announced his Skills for America’s Future program, a private sector-led initiative in which “businesses and community colleges [will] work together to match the work in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom.” The program’s public-private partnerships are aimed at improving the role community colleges play in training graduates for jobs.
While due recognition was given to community colleges and their important role within higher education, particularly the opportunities they provide to low-income youth and minorities, the summit did more to foster conversation about the challenges public two-year institutions face, than offer concrete solutions. These challenges include diminishing financial resources during a period of extremely high enrollment and poor student completion rates. One notable initiative announced to specifically address graduation rates, was a $34.8 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to be administered over the next five years; however, the grant will be available to only nine states. On why completion rates are stagnant at two-year institutions, several reasons were cited by community college presidents to the Washington Post, including poor college readiness, remediation, and the cultural value put on associates degrees. As the summit came to a close, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave his take on how community colleges can move forward to meet these challenges: get better at sharing best practices with one another. (video clip above)