Tuesday, October 5, 2010

White House Summit on Communty Colleges Ends With a Consensus on Challenges

By the end of Tuesday’s White House Summit on Community Colleges, two messages had crystallized. First, so-called “non-traditional students” -- older learners juggling jobs and families -- should now simply be considered “21st century students.” “They are the new normal,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told attendees. Second, a key strategy for the government and grantmakers alike will be finding ways to help community colleges share best practices as they retool to meet President Barack Obama’s call for 5 million more graduates from their institutions by 2020.

“What we have to do is take to scale what’s working,” Duncan told attendees during the summit’s closing session.

Along with the high-profile initiatives from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Aspen Institute, and the federal government announced earlier in the day, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis reminded attendees that the application process is beginning for the $2 billion Community College and Career Training Grant Program, signed into law earlier this year as part of the health care reconciliation bill.

“It’s about capacity building... about developing programs and curricula that last longer than the funding does,” Solis said of the program.

During the final session, summit attendees shared key challenges and potential solutions explored in six breakout groups, including:

Industry partnerships. Strong solutions include those with a sense of reciprocity between colleges and their industry partners, as well as financial and other support from local governments; those with flexible delivery options, including on-site, online, and non-traditional course hours; and those with a clear and accessible pathway for individuals. Challenges include remediation; funding for capacity building in skills training; differences in state funding models that make it difficult to replicate successful partnerships; and the need to award credit based on training workers have already received, including apprenticeships.

Military and veterans programs. Attendees acknowledged the role community colleges play in the education of veterans and the value of on-campus supports, such as veterans groups. Challenges include the need to ensure a transition and support system for veterans leaving active duty, and ways to share successful practices put into place at community colleges, including veteran-to-veteran support, priority placement, military spouse career advancement programs, and ways to maximize GI Bill benefits.

Completion. Among the challenges in this critical area are the need to communicate the value of a credential or diploma to students; professional development to help community college instructors support students; developmental education programs; integrating technology; and identifying solutions that work among disparate community college campuses.

Financial aid. Challenges include the need to simplify the financial aid process, especially for students who may be the first in their family to attend college; rethinking disincentives for working students receiving Pell Grants; considering ways to consolidate different forms of financial aid; and supporting financial aid officers who have been strained by budget cuts and the increasing numbers of students who need their help.

Baccalaureate pathways. Challenges include the need for support and counseling for students considering transferring to a four-year institution; inconsistency in credit hours and course numbering systems; and creating articulation programs for career and technical education programs.

21st century community colleges. Key challenges include leveraging technology to provide new course offerings, track alumni and the transfer of credits, and support faculty; the need to examine the role both full-time and adjunct professors play as they take on new support roles; and ways to leverage private sector partnerships to emphasize the importance of learning within contexts that are meaningful to "21st century students."

The U.S. Education Department will host another “virtual community college summit” in 2011. But Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden concluded the present-day White House summit by urging attendees to take the same critical look at key priorities with key partners in their own communities. “Go back to your businesses and your schools, and start this conversation again,” she said. To that end, the White House prepared a special toolkit for community college leaders, which includes information for colleges interested in holding their own local community college summit on their campuses. It can be downloaded here.

“This is our moment in history to make a difference, and let’s grab that opportunity,” Biden said.


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