Historic White House Summit to Put Community Colleges in the Spotlight

October 05, 2010

In the East Room of the White House today, a collection of college presidents, business leaders, philanthropists, and others will discuss how community colleges can help meet the job-training and education needs of the nation's evolving work force. They will discuss the critical role these institutions will have to play if the nation is to achieve President Obama's goal of leading the world with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

A crowd of about 150 is expected to attend the event, the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, which is scheduled to last about three hours. President Obama is scheduled to make remarks, as is Jill Biden, a community-college instructor and the summit's lead organizer.

Several new efforts to improve community colleges and expand their programs are scheduled to be announced at the summit, including efforts to improve job training and increase completion rates at the colleges.

The White House event has been anticipated by higher-education leaders as a way to highlight the importance of community colleges, which educate almost half of the nation's undergraduates. But many college leaders and faculty members have expressed disappointment in the way the event was organized, and have criticized the limited role faculty members will have in it.

A Centerpiece Scaled Back

The president made community colleges a centerpiece of his higher-education agenda shortly after taking office, proposing a $12-billion program that would rebuild crumbling community-college facilities; increase the number of two-year students who graduate and transfer to four-year colleges; improve remedial education; forge stronger ties between colleges and employers; and create inexpensive, open-source courses for students to take online. It would be, he said, the most historic effort on behalf of community colleges since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, in 1944.

Now, a year after President Obama proposed his plan, known as the American Graduation Initiative, it is in ruins. It was gutted during negotiations over legislation to overhaul student aid and the nation's health-care system, with the final bill leaving community colleges with only a $2-billion career-training program under the Department of Labor. When the president signed the bill, he did so on a community-college campus and made a point of praising two-year institutions, announcing then that the White House would hold the summit.

But many college leaders, while they welcome today's summit and the attention it could bring to two-year institutions, view it as a sort of consolation prize. And a number of people have criticized the White House for the way it has prepared for the summit, saying its efforts have seemed disorganized, with basic details like invitation lists coming together at the last minute. That has led critics to question the administration's commitment to the sector.

While the summit was announced in March, it was only in mid-September that a date was set for it, and only two weeks ago that e-mail invitations went out to selected participants. More important, there is evidence that community-college leaders were not consulted on the summit's agenda but rather offered an opportunity to provide feedback on several topics that the White House had already chosen to focus on.

The White House did set up a blog on its Web site, inviting thoughts and questions for the summit, but that went online just three weeks ago. Some invitations were sent to participants just a few days ago. One invitee said he was told Monday that his invitation was being withdrawn.

"It sounds to me that the summit is just a piece of public relations," said Betsy Smith, who has taught English as a second language at Cape Cod Community College.

Some of the participants who were scheduled to speak at the event's breakout sessions, when contacted by a reporter less than a week before the summit, said they didn't even know which session they were assigned to attend, making it hard to prepare remarks and contribute thoughtfully to the discussion.

Ms. Smith and other adjunct faculty members like her are also upset that adjuncts won't be well-represented at the summit. According to faculty groups, very few adjunct instructors were invited to the event. White House officials said that faculty views will be heard, especially because many participants are former community-college instructors.

"How can the summit be taken seriously if the people leading it don't seem to be educators?" Ms. Smith asked. "They are the ones who can discuss firsthand the challenges that community colleges face."

A High-Profile Forum

Regardless of the criticism, most participants said they were looking forward to the event and appreciated the fact that the summit will thrust community colleges into the spotlight like never before. Numerous community colleges plan to show the summit live on their campuses, such as Lorain County Community College, in Ohio. National news-media outlets are expected to cover it, giving participants ample opportunity to put forth their ideas about how community colleges can meet the president's college-completion goal. He wants five million more community-college graduates to earn degrees or certificates by 2020.

Participants also hope that the sector can finally shed what some have referred to as its "Rodney Dangerfield" image and gain more respect for its work. Community colleges educate roughly 11 million individuals nationwide, with over half of them taking for-credit classes that lead to degrees or certificates.

George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said the summit's success hinges on what happens after the participants leave the White House and go back to their day jobs.

"I hope this is not just a one-time event," he said, "but that it will affect policy down the road."

New Efforts to Help Colleges

At least three national efforts to expand the work of community colleges are scheduled to be announced at the summit. President Obama plans to announce a national public-private partnership to help retrain workers for jobs that are in demand. The national program is in response to frustrations that have been expressed both by workers and by employers who complain that public-retraining programs frequently do not provide students with employable skills. The new program is intended to help better align community-college curricula with the needs of local companies.

The Aspen Institute, a Washington-based not-for-profit, private research organization, will run the partnership, named Skills for America's Future. The president will also announce the creation of a government task force that will include representatives from the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce and other federal agencies. The task force will ensure that federal efforts are coordinated and facilitate the private sector's access to federal training and education programs.

Melinda Gates, who is attending the summit, will announce that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will spend $35-million over five years to help increase the graduation rates of community-college students. The Completion by Design program will award competitive grants to groups of community colleges, which will then use the money to devise and enact new approaches to making the colleges more accessible to students, especially those from low-income families.

Ms. Gates, co-chair of the foundation, also plans to call today for making college completion a national priority. There is plenty of evidence that the United States has a poor record on that front. According to the most recent federal data, just 22 percent of first-time, full-time students in community colleges graduate within three years. For Hispanic and black students, the rate is even worse, at 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

And other research shows why it matters, to individuals and to the nation as a whole, that more people earn a college degree, foundation officials said. A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that, by 2018, 63 percent of jobs will require at least some postsecondary education. The report also shows that, without a significant change in course, the labor market will be short three million educated workers over the next eight years.

The Aspen Institute, the Joyce and Lumina foundations, and the charitable foundations of Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase will announce their partnership to create the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The $1-million annual prize will recognize outstanding performers and rising stars that deliver exceptional results in student-completion rates and work-force success. The first winners of the Aspen Prize will be announced in the fall of 2011.

Student Voices

One constituency that did get an invitation to the summit is students. Many of them will fly to Washington to voice their concern on issues such as college affordability, graduation rates, and support for military veterans during the summit's breakout sessions.

Their real-life stories will add authenticity to an event where federal and state policy leaders can only talk about issues in the abstract.

Casey Maliszewski, a 26-year-old graduate student at Columbia University, said she can't wait to tell her story. She said community college not only made it possible for her to attend college but also that the experience influenced her current graduate studies in educational policy. Ms. Maliszewski was set to attend a four-year university after high school but changed her mind when she realized she couldn't afford the student-loan debt she would need to take on.

Instead, she enrolled at a Raritan Valley Community College in her native New Jersey and flourished, especially after joining the college's Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society chapter. She stayed on a third year at the community college after being elected the organization's international president so she could serve her term. She later went on to earn her bachelor's degree from Mount Holyoke College.

"There is really no limit to what you can accomplish at a community college," she said. "There is an unfortunate stigma associated with community colleges, but I think that is breaking down. Look at me. I was able to go on to an Ivy League school."