WASHINGTON – Take note, Jill Biden: Community college leaders have a lot they want to talk about at the White House summit you plan to host this fall.
Last month, when President Obama signed  the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, he asked the vice president’s wife to convene a national conference “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.” Biden, who has been an educator for more than 29 years, teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College.
Even though the $12 billion American Graduation Initiative  was cut from the reconciliation legislation, the final version does include $2 billion in competitive grant funding  for community colleges through 2014. Acknowledging that some federal funding is better than none at all, some community college advocates say summit attendees should brainstorm about ways to supplement what the reconciliation bill had to offer.
George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said that President Obama told him at the reconciliation bill signing that he wanted to “build on” the $2 billion in funding. Given where federal funding stands now for two-year institutions, however, Boggs suggested that “the overall theme of the summit should be focused on how we can meet the President’s goal to improve education attainment and the key role that community colleges will play.” Last summer, the president called  for five million more community college graduates by 2020.
“A summit focus on college completion could develop recommendations to identify and remove barriers to program or college completion for students,” Boggs added. “We will need to look at ways to improve both college access and student success. [The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act] will likely address the need for continued increases in federal student financial aid, but infrastructure needs, online course delivery support and the innovation and success support that would have been provided by [the American Graduation Initiative] should be reviewed. Also, we need to look at state and federal policies that make it difficult for students to transfer or otherwise complete their goals for colleges to focus on student learning and completion.”
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Boggs suggested that educators “will be in a better position” to lobby legislators and draw attention to key community college issues in the fall than they were last month amid the bitterly partisan fight over the reconciliation bill. He argued that community colleges enjoy bipartisan support but that Republicans had issues with the student aid bill because of where the money was coming from -- the banks. Those issues, he noted, will not be around to hinder discussion in the fall.
Other Washington-based thinkers have broader ideas for the summit’s agenda.
Louis Soares, director of the postsecondary education program at the Center for American Progress, argued that if community colleges are to meet the president’s goal, changes are needed in how they are held accountable and how they fit within the larger educational system.
“Let’s start looking at what we do with existing resources,” Soares said. “Community colleges, on a [full-time-equivalent] basis, get less than their four-year colleagues. We need to look at whether or not that difference is justified. If you’re getting six grand for English 101 at a community college and your local state land grant [university] is getting nine grand for the same English 101, does that reflect a difference in cost or performance? We need to think more about higher education and getting to the outcomes we need to be at to be productive.”
Soares also underscored that the summit would be an ideal time for community college leaders to lobby for the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act , legislation enacted in 1998 to fund training programs for displaced workers and others who are unemployed. Still, he cautioned that discussing the legislation with community colleges often “gets confusing” and that in-depth debate about revisions to the legislation should not get in the way of any larger discussion of workforce development at the summit.
However, David Bunting, executive director of the Iowa Association for Career and Technical Education, argued that summit participants “cannot separate education from workforce development from economic development” and that discussion about the transfer function of community colleges should not overshadow talk of their skills training programs.
“We always tell career teachers to integrate reading, writing and mathematics into their curriculum, but we never tell, say, English teachers to integrate work skills,” Bunting said. “The college-level biology teacher, for instance, should be inspiring students to careers in biology and telling them what’s out there for them. When we talk integration, we only think the career-tech [instructors] should do it; the academics should do it, too. Maybe what we need to do is put much more emphasis on what’s going to be used.”
Though improving student completion and reforming workforce development dominate the talking points of most community college advocates, some leaders expressed hope that other, more specific, concerns will be addressed at the upcoming national summit.
Roy Flores, chancellor of Pima Community College, in Arizona, said education leaders need to take a look at how to reform developmental education. He argued that current policies in many states, such as restrictive funding formulas, do not allow institutions to experiment with nontraditional methods of instruction. He said he would like for states “to shed these rules” and let community colleges “try different things."
Flores also noted that the success (or lack thereof) of minority and other disadvantaged students should not be ignored at the summit.
“All of the data … tell us we’ve done a real miserable job educating Hispanics and other minority students,” Flores said. “We’ve a state of affairs such that we’re not going to be competitive internationally in terms of graduating folks with bachelor’s degrees and other measurements if we don’t help these students. I don’t think making incremental change is going to make a difference.… We need to look at the way education is organized and find out what works and what doesn’t. If we don’t step it up with Hispanics and other minorities, we’ll have a serious, serious problem down the road.”
Randy Smith, president of the Rural Community College Alliance , said he would like to ensure that his institutions, most of which have small enrollments, are not overshadowed by urban community colleges, which often have more funding and get more public recognition for their work.
“Many times, rural community colleges are left out or their opinions are not considered,” Smith said. “We hope that the forum will recognize the important role the rural community colleges play in American’s communities and in our higher education system. Even though rural community colleges may be small, they still serve hundreds of thousands of students and they are an ‘anchor’ in their communities. The success of the college is critical to the success of a rural community, and we hope that policy makers understand the importance of the community college to the overall economic health of rural communities.”
Even professors and students on the ground at Biden’s relatively new home institution, Northern Virginia Community College, have a few suggestions for her upcoming summit.
Jim McClellan, dean of liberal studies at the college’s Alexandria campus who has taught there for 35 years, said he is most concerned with how to reach millennial students and would like to see this matter discussed broadly.
“The nature of students has changed in the past few years as a result of technology,” McClellan said. “We see shorter attention spans. We see students who think there’s nothing wrong with texting or using laptops to message back and forth in class. We have students who arrive late and leave early or just don’t pay attention at all. I think I slept through most of my junior year of college, but I at least tried to do so inconspicuously. I think there’s no interest among students to cover up not paying attention in class. How can we teach students who have grown up in this environment and with technologies we just couldn’t imagine when we came up?”
Pat Gary, chair of the College Senate and mathematics professor at the college’s Manassas campus, said she would like to see national leaders talk about some of the issues that affect community college students day to day.
“The rising cost of textbooks is still a real issue for some of our students,” Gary said. “Some of them pay more for textbooks than they do for tuition here. Also, we need to address things like childcare assistance. These are the everyday issues that students are dealing with and struggling with.”
Arthur Tamayo, a 20-year-old sophomore and president of the student government at the college’s Woodbridge campus, said he hopes that the summit will help change the general student perception of community college.
“There’s always that notion that community colleges are for people who weren’t cut out for college,” Tamayo said. “That’s just wrong. I definitely think that’s an issue that needs to be taken care of. A lot of emphasis needs to be put on those kids in high school who don’t aspire to go to a community college that it may be in their best interest to start out there. If that perception would change, so many more students would have the opportunity to attend college.”
Tamayo also noted that more focus needs to be put on explaining the details of transfer to community college students. He said he often sees a disconnect between the advice students are given – to complete an associate’s degree before transferring to a four-year institution – and what is sometimes in their best interest – to transfer prior to getting an associate’s degree.
Whatever their suggestions for Biden, however, all of the community college advocates noted their optimism about the upcoming summit and its potential to focus Congressional attention on their institutions.