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How High a Summit?

September 16, 2010

The announcement early Wednesday morning of a date for the long-awaited White House Summit on Community Colleges, chaired by Jill Biden, still did not make clear how substantive the goals of the event will be.

The summit, scheduled to take place Oct. 5, is viewed by many political observers as something of a consolation prize for community college leaders, who were generally disappointed by the stripping of the $12-billion American Graduation Initiative from the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. At the signing of the reconciliation bill in March, President Obama asked the vice president’s wife, who teaches remedial English at Northern Virginia Community College, to host an event “to provide an opportunity for community college leaders, students, education experts, business leaders and others to share innovative ways to educate our way to a better economy.” Since then, many community college leaders have been wondering when the event would take place — and what would actually happen there.

Details about the event are scarce, and administration officials did not respond to requests for comment. It is not clear who will be invited to the event, whether it will actually take place at the White House, or if either the president or vice president is scheduled to make an appearance. Prior to the event, however, students and educators are being encouraged by organizers to share videos and comments about their community college experiences to generate discussion among participants.

"The summit will bring together students, community colleges, business, philanthropy, federal and state policy leaders and others to discuss how community colleges can ensure that we have the most educated workforce in the world," wrote Biden in a White House blog post. "I see firsthand the power of community colleges to change lives every single day I am in the classroom, and after 17 years as a community college teacher, I am still energized and inspired by my students every day."

Conversation at the summit, according to the White House announcement, will mainly center on President Obama’s goal for the country to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 and how community colleges can help achieve this target. While most community college educators support the goal, some have expressed frustration about its being set at a time many are facing deep budget cuts.

Nevertheless, no new community college-centered legislation is expected to be unveiled at next month’s summit.

“I don’t know whether to expect any new legislation proposals,” said George Boggs, outgoing president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “Think about what’s going on politically. I’m not optimistic that there’s going to be any significant funding for community colleges.”

Though any new funding seems unlikely, Boggs does anticipate a formal rollout of the $2-billion Community College and Career Training Grant Program, a Trade Adjustment Assistance program that was authorized last year in stimulus legislation but not funded until this year’s reconciliation act, to coincide with the summit. Community colleges can apply for these competitive grants for the purpose of “developing, offering, and improving educational or career training.”

As for the impact of the summit, in the absence of any substantive talk of funding, Boggs is hopeful it will continue to shine a spotlight on community colleges, which have already enjoyed unprecedented attention from the Obama administration.

“They want to have a broad audience of students, business leaders, foundation leaders and college professionals,” Boggs said. “I think it’s going to be a small audience, so I’ve been encouraging them to have satellite centers to have more people be involved. I hope it doesn’t slide under the radar. … I hope for continued visibility for community colleges so that the public and policy makers know what the president has set out for education attainment in this country.”

Some education observers outside of the Beltway are more restrained in their early appraisal of the summit.

“I certainly think there was this feeling that community college people had gotten their hopes up about a major infusion of resources and that didn’t happen, so this kind of says we’re not forgetting about them,” said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College. “Given that there’s not going to be additional money and there probably won’t be new legislation, the conversation shifts to what the Department of Education can do to meet the president’s graduation goals. I think that’s a perfectly useful discussion to have, and it makes these issues more prominent. But, without additional resources or new resources, it’s not clear to me what can be done.”

Bailey noted that his organization was asked by the administration to write some “background papers” for the summit’s organizers, adding that there was great interest in discussing developmental education reforms and improving connections between high school and college. Still, he argued that the upcoming summit’s audience is not necessarily community colleges but policymakers.

“We’re all kind of guessing what it is they want to accomplish,” Bailey said. “I would think it’s a bully pulpit function. Here we’re using the White House and the visibility the White House can get. It’ll be interesting, but it’s anybody’s guess as to whether it’s useful.”

 

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