The concept of college completion must become embedded in the community-college culture, and college leaders must become bolder in speaking up to policy makers about the sector's needs, said Walter G. Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, during the opening session of the association's 91st annual convention here on Saturday.
Mr. Bumphus, who started his post just three months ago, made his remarks before a large crowd, many sporting colorful strings of Mardi Gras-style beads around their neck.
In a speech that was part pep talk and part reality check, Mr. Bumphus provided a blunt assessment of the sector and his vision to improve it. One aspect of that effort has been embarking on a listening tour to gauge the top issues facing two-year colleges. He also plans to convene a commission to further examine the issues and outline recommendations. The commission's three co-chairs will be Kay M. McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin; Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cuyahoga Community College, in Cleveland; and Augustine P. Gallego, chancellor emeritus of San Diego Community College District.
The committee will spend a year researching and debating the issues before presenting a final report at next year's convention in Orlando, Fla.
"I understand your difficult choices," Mr. Bumphus told community-college leaders during his remarks on Saturday. "There is more to do and less with which to get it done, and yet you persist. You persist because serving students and communities is hard-wired in our collective DNA."
This year's convention opens at a precarious time for community colleges, which the Obama administration has identified as key to the president's goals of producing an additional five million graduates with postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2020. The sector gained considerable national exposure during last year's White House Summit on Community Colleges.
But the White House attention hasn't translated into additional dollars at the state level for the nation's two-year institutions. Mr. Bumphus lamented the mismatch between what community colleges are asked to do and the resources they are provided. "Last year we were awarded only 27 percent of all government dollars expended on higher education, while serving almost half of the country's undergraduates," Mr. Bumphus said.
He also spoke about the numerous challenges facing community colleges and their students, including the possible trimming of Pell Grant aid, the loss of state scholarship dollars, and the plight of high-school graduates who are undocumented immigrants in states that make them ineligible to pay in-state tuition.
He said the current erosion of financial support for community colleges at all levels of government is willfully forgetful of the connection between a college education and a healthy democracy.
"We need to remind policy makers, even as we remind ourselves, of our force as an equalizer," he said.
Open-access admission has always been the hallmark of community colleges, but it is also widely known that too many of their students never graduate with a degree or certificate. The need for remedial course work continues to be a major stumbling block for many students.
Just under a million students leave the nation's community colleges each year carrying a credential "that gives them a better shot at the life they want," Mr. Bumphus said. "But that is only 8 percent of our students."
Figures like that add urgency to the nation's college-completion agenda and have many community-college advocates pushing for a culture change.
Mr. Bumphus called on community-college leaders to become more aggressive in their advocacy work, saying their voices are often too timid. He said that in the days ahead, as calls for budget cuts grow, many risks lurk ahead, and many players will try to exert their control.
"So I want to say to you, it's all hands on deck," he said. "We need to be both brave and bold in our efforts to influence decisions that affect us."