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Community Colleges and the State of the Union

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama called the inability of many hard-working Americans to enjoy the American Dream “the defining issue of our time.”  We shouldn’t “settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” he said, and called for restoring “an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

In the speech, Obama emphasized the role of education, and community colleges in particular, in restoring equal opportunity for individuals of all backgrounds. A coveted seat next to First Lady Michelle Obama was reserved for Jackie Bray, a single mother from North Carolina who attended Central Piedmont Community College in order to get the skills necessary to work at a Siemens gas-turbine factory. Obama pledged to “give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers.”

As open-access institutions with lower tuition levels than four-year universities, community colleges are at the heart of the president’s larger goals of restoring social mobility and making the U.S. the most educated country in the world. But at the very moment that community colleges are being asked to do more, they are the subject of budget cuts and are facing demographic changes that make their job more difficult.

Research finds that the economic and racial divide between two- and four-year colleges is growing, with upper-middle-class students less likely to use community colleges than in the past. This change, in turn, may be weakening the political and social capital of two-year institutions, which historically have educated a broad cross-section of students.

To address this issue, The Century Foundation, where I work, is assembling a blue-ribbon Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal. The group, which is supported with funding from the Ford Foundation, will be chaired by Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, and Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College. Marx was until recently president of Amherst College, where he championed social mobility and pursued an important program to ensure that bright low-income community college students could transfer to one of the most selective four-year colleges in the country. Padron heads the nation’s largest institution of higher education, serving more than 174,000 students. Miami Dade, a two-year college which also offers bachelor’s degrees in certain disciplines, was recently named a top finalist for the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The Century Foundation task force will examine the demographic challenges facing community colleges and what can be done to best address them.

President Obama was right to highlight the importance of community colleges and to single out Jackie Bray as a community college success story. If our society is serious about wanting to make sure that everyone has a “fair shot” at the American Dream, strengthening community colleges must be at the core of our efforts.

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