President Obama, whose bid last year to pump billions of dollars into community colleges was scaled back dramatically by Congress, is using his bully pulpit this week to raise the profile of two-year colleges.
He also is calling on public-private partnerships and philanthropies to help the schools meet his goal to produce a well-educated workforce that is prepared to compete globally.
On Monday, he announced an initiative through which companies, labor unions and two-year colleges in 50 states would collaborate to improve job training and workforce development.
Today, he is scheduled to address business leaders, educators, and others at a White House summit aimed at better aligning learning with workforce goals.
“We want to make it easier to join students looking for jobs with businesses looking to hire,” Obama said Monday at the start of a meeting with his economic recovery advisory board. “We want to put community colleges and employers together to create programs that match curricula in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom.”
Among companies that have already signed on: McDonald’s, which will expand a literacy program, and Gap, which expects to hire up to 1,200 community college students next year.
Among initiatives to be unveiled today: a $35 million competitive grant, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to improve completion rates at community colleges in nine states; and a $1 million annual prize to honor a top-performing community college or “rising star.” The prize, to be awarded for the first time next fall, is funded by several charitable organizations, including the non-profit Aspen Institute.
Over the next decade, nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require higher education and workforce training, economists project. As part of his goal for the USA to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, Obama last year challenged the nation’s 1,200 community colleges to produce an additional 5 million graduates.
He also has acknowledged that many community colleges — and the more than 8 million students enrolled in them — face significant challenges. Just 25% of students at two-year schools earn a credential or transfer to a four-year college within three years.
Presiding over much of today’s summit will be Jill Biden, a community college instructor and wife of Vice President Biden. She said Monday the Obama administration will in coming months open a competition to award $500 million in federal dollars over the next year as part of a four-year program to fund a community college and career training initiative.
Congress last year approved $2 billion for that initiative — less than the $12 billion Obama had proposed to spend over 10 years. White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes said Monday the initiatives rolling out this week are designed to build on administration efforts “in a smart and innovative way. Resources are important but not by themselves. We have to have reforms.”
Katherine Boswell, executive director of the Community College Policy Center at the non-profit Academy for Educational Development, said the summit is an important sign of commitment but acknowledged disappointment that Obama’s initial proposal wasn’t fully funded.
“I know there was a lot of anticipation, but politics are real and they intervened,” she says.
Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, which is among organizations supporting the $1 million prize, said public-private partnerships are essential.
Obama “helped put a marker out there to say a major investment in change is required,” Merisotis says. “These are all pieces of the puzzle.”