WASHINGTON – Shining a spotlight on community colleges at a White House summit, President Barack Obama will call attention to a system of low-budget schools he expects will train future workers and help make the U.S. first in the world in the proportion of students earning college degrees.
But these colleges are facing some challenges, officials say, including surging enrollment, high dropout rates and large numbers of students who need remedial education before they can tackle college-level work.
Such issues are on the agenda Tuesday for the first summit on community colleges at the White House.
Obama is scheduled to deliver opening remarks.
The daylong affair will involve representatives from community colleges, business, philanthropy, and government in discussions about how these schools can meet future job training and education needs and also help Obama fulfill his wish for the U.S. to have produced an additional 8 million graduates by 2020.
The administration is looking to the nation's nearly 1,200 community colleges to turn out 5 million of those degree holders.
Falling exactly four weeks before crucial midterm elections, the summit will give Obama another chance to boost Democrats by arguing that Republicans would reverse his administration's progress in making college more affordable and student loans cheaper — should the GOP win full, or even partial, control of Congress.
Obama also signed legislation this year that will pump $2 billion dollars into community colleges — $500 million a year for four years. An announcement on the first $500 million installment is expected later in the fall.
The president said Monday that a Republican plan to cut education funding "just doesn't make sense" when the economy is struggling and other countries are competing harder against the U.S.
On Monday, Obama also announced a new public-private partnership linking major corporations like the Gap Inc. and McDonald's with community colleges to improve job training. Obama said the Skills for America's Future program would make it easier to connect job-seeking students with businesses looking to hire.
White House adviser Melody Barnes said the summit will highlight two similar partnerships.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is launching Completion by Design, a $35 million, five-year competitive grant program to boost community college graduation rates, Barnes said.
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 that 3 of every 4 community college students leave without receiving a training certificate or a degree.
Barnes said the Aspen Institute and several charitable foundations will offer the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a $1 million annual award for outstanding community colleges, beginning next year.
Obama put Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, in charge of the summit. She has taught English at community colleges for the past 17 years of her three decades as an educator. She still teaches twice a week at a community college not far from the White House and often says these schools are America's best-kept secret.
"Most people were looking for a four-year college and they just sort of bypassed community colleges," Jill Biden told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. "Now that the word is out they're realizing, especially students in the middle class, that this is a way they can afford college."
Community college tuition is about $2,500 a year.
"What I'm hoping this summit does is create awareness and highlight the value of community colleges," Jill Biden said.
That value, however, is being tested.
Besides the dropout rate, about 60 percent of community college students coming from high school need remedial instruction, said George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges.
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.
Enrollment also got a boost from families who realized they could save on tuition by sending their kids to a community college for two years before they transfer to a four-year institution.
Community colleges are also making do with leaner state budgets, Boggs said.