POV: White House Summit Leaves Community Colleges on Outside Looking In
It used to be that community colleges and President Obama were frequent and passionate dance partners.
The president led the colleges into the media spotlight, gliding gracefully into places they had never been before. Obama staged events on community college campuses. He announced major initiatives while surrounded by their students. He steered billions of dollars their way for workforce development programs
The president repeatedly said community colleges were central to the nation’s economic recovery. He seemed to love the institutions and they loved him back.
But during a lavish gathering at the White House last month, two-year colleges were treated more like the wallflower they once were than the belle of the ball that they had become. The suitor who once was unrestrained in his affection now seemed aloof, distant.
The event was a daylong education summit, where Obama assembled about 140 college leaders, business people, foundation heads and nonprofit executives to talk about ways they could solve a vexing and stubborn problem: getting more low-income students into college and helping them earn a degree once they get there.
The leaders talked about reforming remedial education and how to better prepare low-income students for college entrance exams. They discussed the value of intensive counseling and early intervention and other topics familiar to community college leaders who have been toiling in those fields for many years.
So its scant surprise that some community college leaders questioned why only about a dozen of their brethren attended the event, even though their institutions enroll about 40 percent of all college students, the majority of them from low-income backgrounds.
Instead, the summit was dominated by the elite institutions: Harvard was represented. So was Yale, Princeton and Brown, the kind of universities whose missions are the opposite of open access: they measure their status by how many applicants they can exclude rather than how many they admit.
To get invited to the summit, colleges had to make a specific commitment to help low-income students overcome barriers. Eleven community colleges and five community college systems joined in making commitments, mostly building on programs that are already under way and are familiar to community college leaders.
Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston, pledged to double the scope of its successful Summer Bridge program to serve at least 900 students per year. Launched in 2012, the Summer Bridge Program enables entering students who need developmental English or math coursework to receive intensive instruction and review to progress through developmental levels prior to the fall semester. The program served more than 800 students in its first two years
The California Community College System committed to using its Student Success Scorecard, a publicly available on-line tool, to establish system-wide and college-level goals for closing the achievement gaps for students of color and improving overall completion rates in remedial math, English and English as a Second Language at all of the state’s 112 community colleges. The system also committed to creating a common assessment that aimed at providing 260,000 incoming students with a clear pathway from entry to degree.
Cuyahoga Community College, in Ohio, committed to implementing a required “First Year Experience” for all new degree-seeking students in the fall of 2014. The first- year experience is intended to connect students with the college community; help them identify a career path and create an educational plan; and equip them with the necessary academic and social skills to be successful in college. This initiative will help the large number of first-generation college students
acclimate to success-oriented behaviors and outcomes.
That low-income students need more help preparing for college, getting admitted and graduating is beyond dispute. A White House report that was distributed at the summit put it this way: “Each year hundreds of thousands of low-income students face barriers to college access and success. Low-income students often lack the guidance and support they need to prepare for college, apply to the best-fit schools, apply for financial aid, enroll and persist in their studies, and ultimately graduate. As a result, large gaps remain in educational achievement between students from low-income families and their high-income peers. Increasing college opportunity is not just an economic imperative, but a reflection of our values. We need to reach, inspire, and empower every student, regardless of background, to make sure that our country is a place where if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.”
Community colleges were not totally ignored at the summit. During a conference call with reporters on the day before the summit, Gene B. Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, acknowledged that community colleges play a critical role and might be the best fit for many students. He called for stronger links between community colleges and four-year colleges.
“This is a very important gateway,” Sperling said. He said policy makers need to assist more students in using community colleges to transition to a four-year school.
But the summit seemed more focused on getting low-income students into elite schools rather than helping broad swaths of low-income students.
And when the music stops, and the lights go up, shouldn’t that be the goal?