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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 October 18 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: ReachingThe Summit

AP Photo/The Annapolis Capital, Paul W. Gillespie

President Obama addresses the White House Summit on Community Colleges while Second Lady Jill Biden looks on.

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Reaching The Summit

White House Summit Fixes Spotlight On Two-Year Schools
By Paul Bradley

For the nation’s community colleges, the White House Summit on Community Colleges was their long-awaited day in the spotlight.

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Often neglected, frequently overlooked and sometimes even ridiculed, two-year colleges were explicitly recognized at the highest levels of government as a linchpin of American prosperity as the country staves off an ever-expanding roster of economic competitors.

“This is an historic and exciting opportunity for all of us in the community college world,” said Jill Biden, wife of the vice-president, a longtime community college professor and organizer of the summit. “For years I have said that community colleges are one of America’s best-kept secrets.Well, with the President of the United States shining a light on us, I think that secret is out.”

But despite the all-hands-on-deck show of support from members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet and lavish praise from all quarters, the summit offered scant hope that the college’s most immediate problem — shrinking resources at a time of skyrocketing enrollment — will be addressed anytime soon.

About 150 college presidents, chancellors, students and business leaders traveled to Washington from around the country for a gathering in the White House’s ornate East Room and heard their institutions praised as places where the path to the American dream begins for thousands of people.

Attendees later broke up into smaller groups to discuss many of the challenges that have long been bedeviling colleges — how to best serve veterans returning from two wars, how to make sense of the convoluted student financial aid process, and perhaps most importantly, how to improve retention and graduation rates.

Unsung Heroes

Community colleges were called unpolished gems in need of attention if the country is ever to realize Obama’s goal of leading the world in educational achievement by the year 2020.

“These colleges are the unsung heroes of America’s education system,” Obama 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.”

“And community colleges aren’t just the key to the future of their students,” he added. “They’re also one of the keys to the future of our country. We are in a global competition to lead in the growth industries of the 21st century.And that leadership depends on a well-educated, highly skilled workforce. We know, for example, that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree are going 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.”

Little concrete emerged from the summit aside from three initiatives being spearheaded by the private sector. They are:

  • Skills for America’s Future, an effort aimed at providing students with marketable skills through partnerships among colleges, industry and labor unions. Several Fortune 500 companies, including McDonald’s, The Gap Inc. and United Technologies, have signed up to support the initiative.

  • Completion by Design, a $35 million grant program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify and replicate the best strategies that increase college retention and graduation rates in nine states.

  • Establishment of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a $1 million competition to recognize and reward community colleges with outstanding academic and workforce outcomes, funded by the Aspen Institute, the Joyce Foundation, the Lumina Foundation for Education, Bank of America Charitable Foundation and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation.

College leaders welcomed the added attention afforded by the summit.

“The summit will attract a lot of national attention and I think prompt a discussion about the critical role that community colleges play in skilling up our workforce,” said Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College. “It will advance the conversation about the importance of improving graduation rates. There is some pretty serious work going on in that realm, and we are starting to see results. The summit can only help.”

Partisan Posturing

This being Washington, of course, the summit would not have been complete without some partisan posturing. Obama slammed Republicans for a budget proposal which the White House says would drastically reduce spending on higher education. Republicans have said they want to cut back most discretionary spending to 2008 levels.

“That’s why I so strongly disagree with the economic plan that was released last week by the Republican leaders in Congress, which would actually cut education by 20 percent,” he said. “It would reduce or eliminate financial aid for 8 million college students. And it would leave community colleges without the resources they need to meet the goals we’ve talked about today.”

“Think about it. China isn’t slashing education by 20 percent right now. India is not slashing education by 20 percent. We are in a fight for the future — a fight that depends on education. And cutting aid for 8 million students, or scaling back our community — our commitment to community colleges, that’s like unilaterally disarming our troops right as they head to the frontlines.”

But beneath the politics and praise, community college leaders acknowledge they face a steep climb to reach Obama’s education goals. The U.S. has lost its grip on the top spot in education attainment as other countries have turned out ever-increasing numbers of college graduates.

Unless current trends are reversed, the American workforce will be less educated in 2020 than it is today. Among older adults — those between the ages of 55 and 64 — the United States ranks first with the highest percentage of postsecondary degree holders of all developed countries. However, among young adults aged 24 to 35, the U.S. ranks twelfth, according to Business Champions, a non-profit group of business and education leaders.

Federal policy makers, for their part, have been quick to claim credit for their focus on community colleges under the Obama administration. The president succeeded in increasing the maximum Pell Grant to $5,500, in simplifying the federal financial aid application and in directing $2 billion in funding for training displaced workers at community colleges.

Significant Challenges

But even that last accomplishment came with a dose of disappointment. The Obama administration abandoned its $12 billion American Graduation Initiative during the health care debate, replacing it with the $2 billion allocation.

Community colleges had been hoping that the AGI would help them rebuild dilapidated and outdated facilities and were disappointed when the funds evaporated.

“Community colleges are enjoying unprecedented visibility and popularity,” said George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “They are seen by many as the solution for economic recovery and as an affordable route to a higher education degree or certificate. The president talks about community colleges and visits them frequently. Policymakers are realizing that the colleges are essential if we are to close the skills gap.

“Yet, the colleges are faced with significant challenges: persistent underfunding, underprepared students, demands for more accountability and transparency, pressure to improve student success rates, pending faculty and leadership turnover. In some cases, colleges are struggling to keep aging facilities and infrastructure serviceable.”

According to the AACC, two-year institutions received 27 percent of total federal, state and local revenues for public degree-granting institutions in 2007–08 while serving 43 percent of all undergraduate students. AACC research showed that funding community colleges remains a low priority for policy makers; community colleges have historically received just 20 percent of the state tax appropriations for higher education and considerably fewer federal funds than do other sectors of higher education.

“Many policymakers have tried to protect community college funding, but the economic reality is that these institutions are really suffering,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, who did not attend the summit.

“Though they arguably do the hardest work in American higher education, their per-student funding is about half of that, on average, for students at four-year institutions. There are notable bright spots, including increases in Pell Grant funding and hoped-for funding from the Department of Labor to support the important roles of community colleges in getting America back to work and up to college completion.”

“But colleges today are growing and they are strapped for funding. They are contributing to re-tooling the American workforce, but agonizing about the imperative to cut class sections and turn away large numbers of students,” she said.

Community colleges are also educating legions of students hailing from groups that historically have not succeeded in college. In 2007, community colleges educated 53 percent of Hispanic students, 45 percent of blacks, 45 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, and 52 percent Native American undergraduates. Given that projected shifts in the U.S. population indicate that increasing numbers of college students will come from these backgrounds, community colleges are critical doorways to true educational equality.

Can community colleges reach the president’s goal without more dollars?

It’s doubtful, said Eduardo J. Padron, president of Miami Dade College.

“The president’s goals are lofty goals, as they should be, but it’s very doubtful that they will be achieved without a significant infusion of resources,” he said. “States have the primary responsibility and they, too, need to rethink priorities and reallocate resources that reflect that new understanding.

“But this is not the reality right now. Miami Dade College’s operational funding has declined by more than 11 percent beginning with 2007-08 state allocation. Additionally, the college hosts some 35,000 students, representing phenomenal enrollment growth, with no support from the state for these students. Our funding per full-time equivalent student has also plummeted in the past three years by nearly 19 percent.”

“I believe President Obama is doing everything in his power to provide new resources, though not without a degree of resistance,” he added. “He has succeeded in increasing the Pell Grant maximum for students and secured a sizable allocation for new innovations at community college, albeit considerably less than the administration had proposed. Ultimately, we need to rethink the priorities of the nation and steer resources where they are most needed. The recognition is dawning that education is the key element in the resurgence of the nation. We need to keep this momentum.”

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Q:  Will the White House Summit on Community Colleges result in meaningful change or was it just spin?

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