Community colleges: America's gateway to the future

Posted: Tuesday, October 05, 2010

For decades, community colleges have been one of our nation's best kept secrets. But the word is out. As a result, community colleges across the country are bursting at the seams. The American dream is within reach for millions of individuals from diverse backgrounds whose perseverance and commitment will be celebrated Tuesday when President Obama and I host the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges.

I've been an educator for the last 29 years - and I continue to teach full-time at a community college not far from the White House. So the challenge to elevate education is personal to me: Every single day in my classroom, I see the power of education to break down barriers and instill confidence in the diverse individuals that I teach. I also see just how critical the college experience is to putting my students on the path to success.

Getting Americans back to work is the great challenge facing our nation right now - and community colleges are critically important to preparing graduates for those jobs.

I have seen job-training partnerships in community colleges across the country in some of our fastest-growing sectors like green technologies and health-care professions. These partnerships are good for the schools, the businesses, and most important, the students and future workers. That is why President Obama is encouraging employers and labor unions to work in partnership with community colleges to ensure that students are learning skills that will ensure America has the most competitive workforce in the 21st century.

In order to restore America's economic competitiveness and prosperity, the Obama administration has set a goal of once again having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020 - 10 short years away. Community colleges are central to this effort, and the president has specifically called on community colleges to help an additional 5 million Americans earn degrees and certificates in that time. Our challenge is to help these institutions meet the pressing education and job training needs of millions of students working to achieve the American dream. Students just like the ones in my classroom, whose lives are changed by the confidence and opportunity they gain from a quality education.

That's why Tuesday's summit participants include a diverse group of employers, faculty, college presidents, leading philanthropists - and, of course, community college students. Our goal is to shine a spotlight on innovations and partnerships that work. We will share ideas on how to replicate what is working so we can ensure that every motivated student who enrolls at a community college will have the opportunity for a quality education and the potential for a great job.

But let me be clear: we are not just talking about the great impact of community colleges. We are committing unprecedented investments in order to support the important work they are doing. The Obama-Biden administration has directed significant resources and energy to help community colleges and their students reach their full potential.

In the coming months, we will announce the first $500 million of a $2 billion, four-year investment in community colleges authorized by Congress and signed into law on March 30. This federal investment will support new state-of-the-art education, training and skills development programs to help out-of-work Americans re-enter the job market with increased knowledge and more marketable skills. The funds will enable community colleges to work with universities, business, government and unions to develop career pathways leading to more college graduates ready for the workforce as our economy recovers. In addition, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration has invested billions of dollars specifically in community colleges.

Since taking office, the Obama administration has made historic investments in financial aid, by tripling investments in tax credits for college expenses, increasing the maximum Pell grant by more than $800, and making the financial aid process easier and faster to navigate.

But we can't do it alone. Private sector companies also need to play a pivotal role in this partnership. Tuesday, we're highlighting institutions like the Gates Foundation, The Aspen Institute, The Joyce Foundation and Lumina, all of which have recently committed new resources and innovative ideas to help prepare our students for a 21st century workforce. I hope others will be inspired to do the same.

In my own teaching and in my travels, I've met countless students who have overcome significant life challenges to get a community college education. Many of them work full-time, have aging parents in need of care and attention, or are parents themselves. Often they contend with difficult economic realities. Yet, they are willing to work as hard as it takes to make life better for themselves and their families. They are students like Janet Ekis, from Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., who wrote to me through "Community college didn't just change my life - it gave me my life."

The White House summit on Tuesday is a step toward giving the respect and recognition community colleges deserve. It is also a call to action to community colleges and their partners to do more than they ever have in their 110-year history. They are uniquely positioned to help millions more people meet their dreams for a better life and to help our nation build a strong economic future. These institutions and the students they serve deserve a chance to succeed and we all have a role to play.

• Dr. Jill Biden is the wife of Vice President Joseph Biden and a teacher at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria.

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