Summit looks at importance of community colleges in higher-ed

President Obama and Dr. Jill Biden address participants of the White House Summit on Community Colleges in the East Room of the White House, Oct. 5, 2010. (Jordan Frasier) 

While four-year universities used to be considered the traditional higher-education experience, a White House summit held Tuesday pointed to community colleges as critical players in the higher-education arena.

The first ever White House Summit on Community Colleges brought together government officials, school leaders, students and business and philanthropic representatives who concluded that community colleges are important to the country’s future in the way they serve non-traditional students.

The summit also looked at the stigma of community colleges and the need to change that perception, as well as the importance of partnerships between colleges, industry and philanthropic organizations.

Above all, the participants concluded that highlighting and sharing information about the best practices at community colleges is critical to improvement across the country.

Dr. Jill Biden hosted Tuesday’s summit at the request of President Obama. Given that Biden has taught community college for 17 years and currently teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, she spoke to the importance of the institutions not only to the nation, but also for her personally.

“I know the power of community colleges to change lives,” Biden said.

Talk of the non-traditional student was a reoccurring theme of the summit.

Each of the six breakout groups referenced these students when addressing challenges from financial aid to college completion to what community colleges of the future will look like.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called these student “21st century students,” a term which caught on by the end of the closing presentations. Duncan said these students, who were once considered non-traditional, are now the norm, and the updated term is useful in adjusting perceptions.

The summit looked at community colleges as a launching pad for “21st century students” to positions in the workforce and to further education.

President Obama said community colleges are critical for work force training and the nation’s economy because of the institutions’ unique ability to educate at a local and relatively accessible level.

“Community colleges aren’t just the key to the future of their students,” Obama said. “They’re also one of the keys to the future of our country.”

Obama said a chief recommendation from his Economic Advisory Board was to expand education and job training. He said business executives need a well qualified worker pool from which to hire, something he said the United States has fallen behind in providing in recent years.

“In just a decade, we’ve fallen from first to ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees,” Obama said. “That not only represents a huge waste of potential; in the global marketplace it represents a threat to our position as the world’s leading economy.”

To remedy that prospect, Obama said his goal is for America to lead the world in college degrees by 2020.

The president also spotlighted recent improvements to high-education, including additions to student aid programs and changes to the way students pay back loans.

Obama said the new partnership, Skills for America’s Future, will help community colleges and businesses match what is taught in the classroom with the needs of employers. He also commended the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for starting a $35 million, five-year, initiative to raise community college graduation rates.

Another partnership between the Aspen Institute and several other foundations will award an annual competitive prize for community college excellence, with the goal of highlighting best practices.

By the end of the summit, there was a clear distinction between the role of community colleges and four-year universities, based on the students needs at the different types of higher-education institutions. Workforce training and economic preparations seemed to be the most important role of the community college system.

Throughout the day, Biden, as a teacher, warned participants they wouldn’t leave the summit without a homework assignment.

So at the close of the summit Biden asked participants to return to their communities and continue the day’s conversation there.

“This is our moment in history to make a difference,” Biden said.

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