• August 29, 2015

Historic White House Summit to Put Community Colleges in the Spotlight

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."


1. disembedded - October 05, 2010 at 03:41 am

The Chronicle is full of spam. Obviously, they don't care enough about subscribers to clean it up. Maybe it's full of computer viruses also. Who knows...it might be!

2. dank48 - October 05, 2010 at 08:18 am

Disembedded, the CHE editors do a pretty good job of cleaning up the spam, once it's brought to their attention. Think about it; the damn stuff is everywhere, and the morons who send it have been promised big bux selling stuff on the internet, and the poor goofs just don't know any better.

The main difference between genius and stupity is that genius has limits.

3. prof_truthteller - October 05, 2010 at 10:23 am

I am sorry to hear that this event was poorly organized. I am also sorry, skeptical, and deeply disappointed that the only mention of faculty is in the complaints that they have been ignored. Well, except for Ms. Biden I guess but she is now much more that just a mere faculty. As if faculty would have anything to contribute, what do they know about improving success of students? The conversation has been hijacked by power players and money makers. Even at the White House. This is exactly the rot that has corrupted K-12; now their evil spawn is going to infest higher education. So discouraging.

4. jacklongmate - October 05, 2010 at 10:33 am

We're concerned with new furniture for our living room, maybe a new color for our kitchen, and redecorating our extra bedroom while ignoring the fact that our roof leaks.

How can there by any credibility in a dialogue about community and technical colleges without recognition that the majority of individuals who deliver instruction are non-tenured, are paid poverty-level incomes, lack job security, and have such dismal trust in the organizations that are supposed to "represent" them that only token number join.

Betsy Smith about this so-called summit seems right on: it would seem to be a public relations event, so that people can say, "See, we've talked about public two-year institutions. We're trying..."

It is senseless to embark on promising new initiatives with a leaky roof.

Jack Longmate
Adjunct English Instructor
Olympic College, Bremerton, Washington
Secretary, NEA-affiliated local
Board of Directors, New Faculty Majority

5. dank48 - October 05, 2010 at 11:36 am

How can there be any credibility in a dialogue about community and technical colleges without recognition that the many if not the majority of individuals who receive instruction are poorly prepared for college, earn near-poverty-level incomes, lack significant home support, and are held in such low esteem by many of their instructors, who don't realize that all would be well if they'd only join the union?

6. fochthansen7 - October 05, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Tell me how completion rates reflect a faculty member's commitment to his or her vocation. Tell me how productive grade rates exclusively indicate the amount of time and effort faculty and students invest in their classroom work. Community college students have real lives filled with conflict and contradiction often difficult to surmount in the fashion that state legislatures demand. Who then is out of touch? Probably not the faculty, whose analyses are rejected time and time again. Just because a legislature says students must graduate in a limited amount of time doesn't mean that employers care when they call in their employees to extra hours, nor does it mean that these students don't care. In week 8, I have several students who have yet to receive their financial aid and do not have textbooks; likely they often do not have time to go to the library reserve desk to read their assignments. Did the student create that conundrum, or did I? Twenty-first century students are variously prepared and are variously available to meet or exceed college ready requirements dependent upon their early preparation or available time AND money. Who makes money for community colleges? Who has power in this equation? People who are not in the classroom seem to be making all the decisions regardless of what reality tells us.

7. ehmurray - October 05, 2010 at 12:46 pm

I find myself in general agreement with many of the comments here. I believe that a fully informed faculty with full local disclosure and transparency and appropriate faculty authority will be ameliorative to the problems faced by the academy of the twenty-first century.

Please feel free to examine the "About" Page of the Faculty of The Mace video blog site, located at: http://www.FacultyofTheMace.com/p/about.html.

Eugene Murray
Lead Moderator
Faculty of The Mace

8. deepwater - October 05, 2010 at 01:54 pm

Cynicism is draining....a kind of voyeurism. Despite politically motivated and spotlight seeking leaders, foundations, administrators and faculty, etc....there are indeed dedicated administrators and faculty working together everyday for the good of students and the communities they serve....that despite negative preconditions students overcome and prosper....that despite the anti-intellectual efforts of those who fear, serious scholarship is still being contemplated. We seem to have parallel universes at odds here. Are you standing in one and "admiring" the other?

9. hoppingmadjunct - October 05, 2010 at 05:32 pm

Jill Biden's high-minded remarks about c.c.s' mission to provide citizens with "the opportunity to reach [their] full potential" was deeply ironic in the context of a faculty that works, most of them, on a per-course pittance with no job security, no benefits, and no institutional support. Most of such faculty, like most of the American population, is less worried about anyone's potential anymore than about putting food on the table and paying the rent. No discussion of higher education in America today, whether at a summet or a department meeting or in a union hall, can have any effect until the tremendous inequities in faculty working conditions -- like some 80% of c.c. teacher off the tenure track! -- have been addressed. Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.

10. drtrevithick - October 05, 2010 at 06:19 pm

Deepwater-it's not about cynicism, or voyeurism. Adjunct and contingent faculty, the people who know the most and who contribute the most to the actual teaching of actual students at actual community colleges, and not at the disney-world version of cc's that are being celebrated, would love to be involved and not relegated to just looking in. The spectacle is indeed a bit draining, in the sense that it is not a positive thing that our leaders, from the White House on down, are so focused on pious and empty gestures that they fail to seek the advice of the community that knows the most about what is happening at community colleges. It all adds up to this, I think, that we, who do know, need to redouble our efforts to tell the truth, to deliver the news to the happy-face crowd that they need to do some real soul-searching about what a nearly-volunteer group of overburdened faculty can do by way of delivering the pie-in-sky sort of educational miracle that seems so popular. Sooner or later the message will become clear and ten we can all work to create a system of higher education that provides access and quality for the most people. Sooner would be better. Later will make the job much harder.
Alan Trevithick
Adjunct in Anthropology, Fordham University
Adjunct in Sociology, Westchester Community College
NYSUT (AFT) member, Westchester Community College
BOard of DIrectors, New Faculty Majority

11. wilkenslibrary - October 05, 2010 at 06:54 pm

My college offered live streaming of the "summit" this afternoon. One of the communications professors brought her class to watch the the opening plenary, and when it was over, I went back to the classroom with them to listen to the discussion. The students analyzed the presentations of the speakers, grading their effectiveness first on observations ranging from eye contact to mastery of their material to dress. Then, the students proceeded to evaluate the content. One liked the idea of a $35,000,000 donation to community colleges, but someone else wondered about how far that would spread and how long it would last. The consensus was that sustained and sustainable funding is necessary if community colleges are to succeed in educating their students. These young people all want good jobs, but they don't necessarily feel the need of a four-year degree to be ready for work, and they agreed that workforce education was just part of the reason they were in college. Hearing their thoughtful evaluation of the plenary made me glad that I teach at this institution but made me sad that every year we are asked to make do with fewer resources. Our students deserve better.

Betsy Smith
Adjunct Professor of ESL
Cape Cod Community College

12. tommoffitt - October 05, 2010 at 07:57 pm

"The longest journey begins with a single step." The quote came to mind reading the comments. How many times have community colleges in general and adjuncts in particular been the subject of this type of national forum? Perhaps we would be better served by figuring out how to make this recognition work for us - more importantly for our students? The road ahead is far from perfect and there most certainly could have been a better start. But it is a start. We would be foolish to disregard the opportunity, to react as simply disorganized complainers. It seems like the wiser response is to put our creative heads together and figure out how to best go forward.

13. tommoffitt - October 05, 2010 at 07:59 pm

Re: Comment #12 - That's my opinion. I welcome your.

14. drtrevithick - October 05, 2010 at 08:31 pm

tommoffitt-It is an event, and we have the responsibility to remark on whether or not it is adequate. It is clearly not adequate-look at the slashing of money from 12 to 2 billion dollars if you want a measurable way of thinking about it. Who in the world is disregarding the opportunity? What is fact is the opportunity? Do you actually think that we are now going to have some sort of CC program every week, or every month or every year? That the problems of faculty staffing which have over the last 30 years brought us to a situation characterised by AAUP as "impending faculty collapse" and by AFT as a move toward "financial exploitation and unprofessional treatment" of faculty-that is to say the people who actually teach the students about whom we ponitificate such pious and tender feelings-are going tpbe solved by this kind of staged morality play? This propaganda?

15. drtrevithick - October 05, 2010 at 08:38 pm

Forgot to add-we are not disorganized complainers by any means. See newfacultymajority.info. Some of us are organized complainers. Don't get us wrong.

16. akronadjunct - October 05, 2010 at 09:16 pm

I applaud the Gates Foundation for their $35 million grant program to help spur innovation on community college campuses. Unfortunately, however, the college completion problem is not constrained only to community college campuses. At my former institution, The University of Akron, the 6-year graduation rate for a 2002 cohort of African American males was 5%. How can this happen?

Well...I have a few thoughts...here's my prescription:

1. Spend $62 million (almost twice the amount of the Gates grant) to build a new football stadium that is currently picked to finish last in their division of a mid-major conference.

2. Pay your president and 35 vice-presidents over half of what you pay the 1,000 part-time faculty who constitute over 60% of the total teaching faculty.

3. Only spend 2.5% of your $400 million annual budget compensating these 1,000 part-time faculty. For good measure, make sure to deny them access to health insurance, a living wage, or access to unemployment compensation between terms.

As predicted, the Summit almost completely ignored THE most pressing issue in higher education: the treatment of adjunct and contingent faculty. It is IMPOSSIBLE to address in any meaningful way the issues raised at today's summit without first addressing the dismal working conditions of America's adjunct and contingent faculty.

Matt Williams
Former Adjunct
Vice-President, New Faculty Majority

17. 22079340 - October 06, 2010 at 01:37 pm

As Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis, a longtime community college president, often says, "A journey of a thousand mile sometimes begins with a flat tire and a blown radiator;" however, those who are committed to the goal often forget the beginning as they advance toward their destination.

It is commendable that Jill Biden (an adjunct faculty member, by the way) has managed to get the nation's attention focused on the good work being done in US community colleges. This "event" must become part of the continuing "process," as the nation needs to recognize that the much of the "real work" in higher education is not being done on campuses that pick and choose the students they will or will not educate. Community colleges take all comers and, in the spirit of Dr. Alexander Astin, are truly excellent in developing the talent of the students they educate, as opposed to measuring their excellence based on things they had nothing to do with, such as high school grade point averages, SAT scores, etc.

The reality is that too many four-year institutions are more interested in their US News and World Report and BCS rankings than they are in what they do for their students and what those students go on to do for and in the world. Public universities have increasingly sought to become copies of elite private universities, as the percentages of low SES, first generation, and multicultural students educated in the public sector continue to decline.

Many of these students enroll in community colleges, where they find smaller classes taught by faculty members whose primary interest is teaching, rather than writing skateboard novels or publishing articles in obscure journals that often end up being read by no one. Community colleges continue to provide a "second chance" to adult students, first generation students, and displaced workers needing to retool their skills to re-enter the workforce. At the same time, these colleges have come to be "the first choice" for students who recognize the tremendous value, quality, and opportunity they offer.

18. 22216726 - October 06, 2010 at 04:20 pm

Tommoffitt & respondent 17...

Amen! Yes, the Summit was a first step in what appears to be a commitment to a continuing process of dialogue and hopefully, action to address the needs of the community college in better serving more and more of our nation's citizens.

Is everything perfect within the world of the CC? Certainly not.

But, I for one am beginning to "tune out" the orchestrated whining of my fellow adjunct instructors that appear to believe that all our ills would be solved by a salary increase.

Conditions for part-time instructors are NOT as dismal on all CC campuses as readers of this commentary might conclude. In fact, many of us find them pretty good and appreciate the opportunity which the CC gives for us to share our expertise and talents with students that are attempting to improve their lives.

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