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Community Colleges' Day in the Sun

October 6, 2010

WASHINGTON — The long-awaited White House Summit on Community Colleges came and went Tuesday without any monumental legislative or policy announcements, though observers did not expect any.

Mostly, the event’s attendees relished the high-profile publicity two-year institutions continue to receive from the Obama administration. In addition, they discussed in groups how to dramatically boost community colleges’ often poor graduation rates, improve their remedial education efforts, and bolster their sometimes neglected job-training role — all in an effort to help a slumping national economy.

Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife and a remedial English instructor at nearby Northern Virginia Community College, kicked off the summit by highlighting what she and other educators consider its great symbolic significance to the sector.

“This is an historic and exciting opportunity for all of us in the community college world,” Biden said. “For years I have said that community colleges are one of America’s best-kept secrets. Well, with the President of the United States shining a light on us, I think that secret is out.”

Reiterating a challenge he made to educators last year, President Obama, who spoke briefly during the summit’s opening session, stressed the importance of community colleges.

“In just a decade, we’ve fallen from first to ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees,” Obama said. “That not only represents a huge waste of potential in the global marketplace, it represents a threat to our position as the world’s leading economy. As far as I’m concerned, America does not play for second place, and we certainly don’t play for ninth. So I’ve set a goal: By 2020, America will once again lead the world in producing college graduates. And I believe community colleges will play a huge part in meeting this goal, by producing an additional 5 million degrees and certificates in the next 10 years.”

Later during the summit, attendees — who included community college presidents, faculty members, and students and the heads of national associations, philanthropic foundations and major corporations — gathered in discussion groups to talk about the major challenges facing two-year institutions today, and some of the “best practices” being adopted to meet them.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led a discussion on the importance of community colleges to veterans and military families. He expressed concern that the military was not doing enough to help soldiers returning from active service enroll at institutions of higher education, particularly community colleges. A few veterans present at the discussion said there was often a “stigma” regarding their ability to earn a postsecondary credential.

“I don’t know how much [those returning from service] know about community colleges,” admitted Mullen, noting that he supported the idea of having more representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs visit campuses regularly to support transitioning students. “That’s on us.”

Public-private partnerships were also emphasized at the summit. Numerous business leaders talked about successful programs they were sponsoring with local community colleges, while educators described how they look for help from local industry.

For example, Katharine Winograd, president of Central New Mexico Community College, talked about her institution’s “reverse job fair,” during which local businesses are asked to talk about what kinds of jobs are needed in their area. After identifying employer needs, she said, the college helped develop short-term programs in which students could be hired into small companies in need of skilled workers.

Attendees in another afternoon session discussed at length the complications of financial aid. Among the main concerns they expressed was the lack of reliable financial aid information available to community college students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college.

“There are not enough people to help students understand what they are getting and how to use it appropriately,” said Chris Chistensen, director of financial aid at Johnson County Community College, in Kansas. “We don’t want students to leave community colleges with debt. We need to have stronger financial aid counselors. This is really an important piece. Students need to understand how to use the money so it benefits them.”

Myriad other issues were touched on at other meetings during the summit. Michael Richards, president of the College of Southern Nevada, lamented that two-year institutions often do not have data-sharing systems that are sophisticated enough to track students from institution to institution. And James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College, in Michigan, expressed concern that many work force development programs are focused on short-term training solutions to get students jobs immediately, instead of continuously working with them to build sustainable careers.

The ideas shared and concerns raised during these smaller meetings were brought to the fore at the summit’s closing session, where Education Secretary Arne Duncan, among other speakers, called on community colleges to work collectively to solve the problems they all face.

“We need to get a lot better at what we do,” Duncan said. “Only a quarter of folks who enroll at community colleges graduate after three years.… We have to find ways to be creative and drive that number up. … We can do a much better job of sharing those best practices.”

Speaking after Duncan, Penny Pritzker, a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, noted that she did not hear all that many community college presidents asking for financial support above all else — in spite of the stripping of the $12 billion American Graduation Initiative from the budget reconciliation bill this year.

“It’s not all about money,” Pritzker said. “Community colleges want more mind share.… It’s about encouraging a positive attitude about working together.”

At summit’s end, several of those in attendance were restrained in their commentary about the day’s events.

Faculty union representatives, in particular, noted that faculty-related issues, such as treatment of and overreliance on adjuncts, were not discussed nearly as much as they would have liked — a worry expressed by many during the planning of the summit.

“The culture of community colleges is really being destroyed by this inequality,” said James Rice, president of the National Education Association’s National Council for Higher Education and a professor at Quinsigamond Community College, in Massachusetts. “I mentioned that 70 percent of the courses at my institution are being taught by contingent faculty. The culture is being torn apart. And I’m careful not to blame them; there are wonderful contingent faculty [members]. But they don’t advise, so it just pours everything back to the full-time faculty and just burdens their work. To have such a large number of contingent employees does not promote the healthiest environment.”

Another union representative expressed her desire that those pushing the “completion agenda” in the community college sector take the time to seek buy-in from faculty.

“I’m hoping that they understand that they can’t do any of this without the faculty’s commitment,” said Sandra Schroeder, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Some faculty members in attendance deflected the issue of whether their voices were well-represented at the summit, finding it a distraction from the event’s main focus.

“This summit is about students,” said Suzanne Gorman Sublette, a full-time sociology instructor at Madison Area Technical College, in Wisconsin. “It’s not about faculty. That’s what I really think. I guess faculty are part of that because obviously faculty provide the instruction. But the purpose of the conversation is to talk about ways to promote student success, especially in such a challenging economy right now.

"A lot of the issues with faculty, quite frankly, are local and state level. So, the federal government, they’re not going to come and negotiate labor contracts. What are they going to do?… I want to talk about low-income students. I want to talk about students of color. I want to talk about ... what we can do to promote middle-class attainment for students who otherwise won’t get it unless they’re at a two-year [institution] with us.”

Taking a broad view of the summit, David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said he considered it a success.

“Although there weren’t any dramatic policy announcements that came out of this, I think the event is highly important symbolically,” Baime said. “Hopefully the conversation that follows will help us revisit some of the issues we talked about today.”

This article was based in part on pool reports.

 

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