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Obama calls community colleges vital for competitiveness

- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 5, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama, arguing that community colleges are crucial to America's future competitiveness, said Tuesday he wants to see the schools produce an additional 5 million graduates by 2020.

Mr. Obama made his comments in the East Room as he convened his first White House summit on community colleges.

The purpose is to boost the schools that provide millions of students with skills training and a less expensive path to a college degree — institutions that also are challenged by climbing enrollments and high dropout rates.

Calling them the "unsung heroes of America's education system," Mr. 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."

A month from crucial midterm elections, Mr. Obama also used the event to highlight his focus on education and to accuse congressional Republicans of wanting to slash education spending and deprive community colleges of necessary resources.

"We are in a fight for the future, a fight that depends on education," the president said. Mr. Obama said global competitors such as India and China aren't cutting education spending, and doing so in the United States would be "like unilaterally disarming our troops right as they head to the front lines."

The daylong exercise at the White House included representatives from some of the nation's 1,200 community colleges, along with officials from business, philanthropy and government. Career teacher Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., presided.

After opening remarks from Mr. Obama and Mrs. Biden, participants broke up into groups to discuss how these educational institutions can better meet the increased demand for job training and also help fulfill Mr. Obama's wish for the United States to become the world's top producer of college graduates by 2020.

"Community colleges are entering a new day in America," said Mrs. Biden, who has taught English at community colleges for 17 of her 30 years as an educator. "For more and more people, community colleges are the way to the future. They're giving real opportunity to students who otherwise wouldn't have it. They're giving hope to families who thought the American dream was slipping away."

The event came a day after the president announced a new public-private partnership linking major corporations such as the Gap Inc. and McDonald's with community colleges to improve job training. Mr. Obama said the privately funded Skills for America's Future program would make it easier to connect job-seeking students and businesses looking to hire.

The event highlighted commitments from private institutions including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Melinda Gates announced the launch of Completion by Design, a $35 million, five-year competitive grant program to boost community college graduation rates.

Community college tuition averages about $2,500 a year. That value, however, is being tested. 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. That means three of every four such students leave college without a training certificate or a degree.

The poor economy led to a 17 percent enrollment surge between the 2007 and 2009 academic years, a lot of it from newly unemployed people who went back to school to brush up on their job skills. The down economy also pushed families to look at community colleges instead of four-year institutions as a way to save on tuition.

Another challenge is that 60 percent of community college students coming from high school need remedial instruction, said George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges.

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