The first ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, held on October 5, 2010, marked a major shift in education policy focus for the Obama Administration. The Summit spotlights two-year community colleges in the United States which President Obama identified as “more important than ever to the country’s competitiveness”. As part of the Administration’s goal to graduate an additional 5 million students from college by 2020, this Summit was designed as a starting point for educational reforms, grants, and projects to be announced to facilitate the change.
An Experienced Leader
Jill Biden, wife of Vice-President Joe Biden and community college professor for 17 years, presided the historic event. According to Dr. Biden, community colleges are “one of America’s best-kept secrets,” because
For more and more people, community colleges are the way to the future. They’re giving real opportunity to students who otherwise wouldn’t have it. They’re giving hope to families who thought the American Dream was slipping away. They are equipping Americans with the skills and expertise that are relevant to the emerging jobs of the future. They’re opening doors for the middle class at a time when the middle class has seen so many doors close to them.
Having extensive experience working with community colleges, Dr. Biden is in a unique position to identify deficiencies and promote change within community colleges across the country. According to the Summit Report, Dr. Biden was grading papers in between an interview on the Today Show and hosting the summit.
During the Summit, Dr. Biden highlighted a multifaceted approach to improving access to community colleges. Not only should professors inspire students in their trade, colleges will need to form “partnerships with businesses in their communities, ensuring that students are trained for jobs that need to be filled.” Below are six areas where the Summit has focused on for community colleges in the future.
Pathway to a Baccalaurate
The first problem the Summit is tackling is the integration of two- and four-year colleges. To tackle the problem, the Summit recommends taking action to streamline (PDF) two-year and four-year college course offerings, making credits readily transferable and providing clear information before course enrollment for what courses will be able to count towards specific majors or colleges down the line. To complement this initiative, the Department of Education developed a report (PDF) noting community colleges as the “pathway to higher education and earnings”.
Community College Completion
Given the high dropout rates of community college students (half will drop out by their second year), the second goal for the Summit was to improve community college completion rates. According to a study (PDF) conducted by Complete College of America, one of the biggest detriments to timely graduation rates is that many students, especially at the community college level, lack the foresight to adequately plan for graduation. To support this claim, the study cites several private community colleges offering “package deals” after students decide on a major. In essence, students make the “big choice” of deciding a major/career path while administrators and college programs make the “little choices” to streamline the graduation process.
While universities of all statures are looking to increase diversity on their campuses, community colleges cater to a much higher proportion of lower-income and minority students. Researchers have long proven the correlation between financial stability and college success, therefore improving access to financial aid (PDF) for community college students is crucial in promoting higher graduation rates.
Community Colleges in the 21st Century
This initiative hones in on the importance of technology in course curriculum in the 21st century. At its core, technology reduces the cost of education by providing easy access to the vast amounts of information on the Internet. Furthermore, information technology allows the education sector to efficiently collect student data (number of majors, graduation rates, effective policies, etc) as a foundation for future reform.
A study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University (PDF) notes that the field of learning science is at its infancy, therefore experts in the field are striving to push the education sector into “the realm of evidence-based instruction”.
Importance of Community Colleges to Veterans and Military Families
In essence, promoting support for veterans and military families (PDF) in community colleges embodies many aspects of the Summit’s goals. First, getting a college education is frequently listed as the number one reason for joining the military. With 43% of all military undergraduates and 39% of veterans receiving collegiate education enrolling in community colleges, the unique demands of the demographic must be addressed, just as they are for other demographics with unique circumstances.
Second, using technology to improve availability of online courses, tutoring, counseling, and virtual libraries will continue to be funded. Not only does this accessibility allow mobile military members and families complete college courses, it allows existing community colleges to scale their operations through digitizing their courses and offerings.
Industry-Community College Partnerships
Many four-year universities hold partnerships with prominent businesses to promote job preparation upon graduation. For example, the University of Washington’s Computer Science Department and Microsoft Research partner every year to host summer institutes to bring professors, students, and researchers together.
Community colleges hold special opportunities for business partnerships, as students tend to attend community college to gain specific skills for the workforce instead of developing a liberal education. In developing community college and industrial partnerships (CCIP) (PDF), the department of education will partake in contextualizing course content, creating professional development resources, sustaining long-term partnerships, and integrating communities into their college systems.
During the Summit, Obama announced a $2 billion fund for community colleges to combat the 17% surge in enrollment between 2007 and 2009. Although the funds were drastically reduced due to federal budget issues, the fund will support remedial programs and industrial partnerships that are severely underfunded.
In addition to the Federal Government’s contributions, the Gates Foundation announced its intentions to invest $34.8 million in competitive grants for community colleges. Supported by research data, Completion by Design, one of the administrative bodies of the investments, will be working with community colleges to apply best practices which support stages where students are more likely to drop out. The rest of the funds will be distributed to community colleges in states invited to apply for grants.