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Praising community colleges, Obama seeks more graduates

Calls schools ‘unsung heroes’ of US system

Jill Biden (left), wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and Melinda Gates, cofounder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at the White House Summit on Community Colleges yesterday. Jill Biden (left), wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and Melinda Gates, cofounder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at the White House Summit on Community Colleges yesterday.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
By Erica Werner
Associated Press / October 6, 2010

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WASHINGTON — President Obama called for community colleges to produce an additional 5 million graduates by 2020 as he convened a White House summit yesterday to spotlight the two-year institutions and their contributions to the country.

Calling them the “unsung heroes of America’s education system,’’ Obama said community colleges “may not get the credit they deserve, they may not get the same resources as other schools, but they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.’’

Obama met yesterday with officials from some of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges, along with businesses and philanthropies. It was the first such gathering at the White House.

Jill Biden, herself a community college educator and the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, presided. The purpose was to boost the schools that provide millions of students with skills and a less-expensive path to a college degree — even as they’re increasingly challenged by climbing enrollments and high dropout rates.

A month from the midterm elections, Obama also used the occasion to accuse congressional Republicans of wanting to slash education spending, as he continued to try to paint an alarming contrast with the GOP.

“We are in a fight for the future, a fight that depends on education,’’ the president said. Cutting spending would be “like unilaterally disarming our troops right as they head to the front lines.’’

Obama signed legislation this year pumping $2 billion into community colleges — $500 million a year for four years — although that was far less than advocates had sought.

Community colleges experienced a 17 percent enrollment surge between 2007 and 2009 as the economic downturn sent laid-off workers searching for new skills and tight budgets forced families to downsize educational goals for their children. At the same time, the colleges are severely underfunded and forced to spend heavily on remedial education for poorly prepared students.

Given the strains on community colleges, it will be a challenge to transform them into a greater engine of change. Martha Kanter, undersecretary of education, said just 25 percent of community college students get a certificate or an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution within three years of enrollment.

Obama’s goal of adding 5 million more community college graduates over the next decade would represent a 50 percent increase in the number of students graduating, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. It’s a crucial piece of Obama’s goal for the United States to produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.