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US community colleges’ day in the sun

The first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges was convened in Washington, DC on 5 October 2010. The event brought together approximately 150 participants from across the United States, including leaders from community colleges, business, and philanthropy, as well as federal and state-level policymakers, and students. The official aim of the event was to “highlight the critical role that community colleges play in developing America’s workforce” and well as their unique contributions to the country’s efforts to achieve certain educational goals.

Many of these goals were touched on by President Obama the day before the summit, with the announcement of the Skills for America’s Future initiative. This effort aims to “ensure there are strong partnerships between growing industries and community college or training programs in every state in the country” to enhance “workforce development strategies, job training programs, and job placement”. Skills for America’s Future builds on another major education policy announcement from the Obama administration back in July 2009, the American Graduation Initiative. At that time, USD 12 billion were proposed by the president to reform and strengthen the community college sector and provide support for five million new community college graduates by 2020.

Casting the spotlight on community colleges has been welcomed by many. These institutions enrol nearly half of all US undergraduates and significant proportions (between 45-53%) of the country’s minority students at the undergraduate level. Yet, the federal commitment to the sector seems tenuous at best. The USD 12 billion originally proposed for community colleges in 2009 was reduced to just USD 2 billion in early 2010, as part of the compromise to pass the much-contested healthcare reform bill. The White House summit itself was criticised to some degree for what was perceived as haphazard and last-minute planning and agenda-setting. Still, strong public interest in efforts to increase the overall quality of skills-oriented education and the quantity of employable postsecondary degree-holders in the US bodes well for ongoing support for America’s community colleges. This enthusiasm is only meaningful, however, if it translates into effective new policies and funding for the sector.

White House Summit on Community Colleges