Buoyed by White House attention to the importance—and needs—of community colleges, some in the K-12 community are waiting to see if that spotlight will generate momentum for improved college readiness and better alignment of high schools with higher education.
Last week’s White House Community College Summit was largely a symbolic event drawing about 150 leaders in education, business, and philanthropy and aimed at focusing attention on what is often labeled an undervalued sector of higher education.
But while the summit produced no big policy recommendations, the issues of high school preparation and college access hovered in the background as participants broke up into working groups after opening remarks by President Barack Obama.
For example, a breakout session on college completion included discussion of dual enrollment and early skills assessment in high schools as important to improving college success, said participant Richard Kazis, the senior vice president at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit group.
“There was a huge amount of energy for, and specific suggestions about, ways for community colleges to work more closely with K-12 so you have fewer students coming to community college needing remediation,” Mr. Kazis said. “Will that commitment ... translate into a longer-term commitment and opportunities? We’ll see.”
Creating a seamless K-16 system is critical to preparing students adequately for success in higher education, said Katherine Boswell, the director of the Community College Policy Center at the Academy for Educational Development, in Washington, who was attending a conference on college readiness in Nashville, Tenn., during the summit.
“We have to have better-connected systems to track K-12 students to community college, universities, and into the workforce,” said Ms. Boswell.
She said that while there is growing energy behind the issue of alignment, that’s hard to accomplish with the current structures and funding mechanisms. Ms. Boswell suggested that state policy must change to require evidence of success and to define college readiness.
“Too long we’ve been operating in a culture of anecdotes,” she said. “We have to do a better job of creating data systems that report more honestly” to students what is and isn’t working when they leave high school and go on to college and careers.
Former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who is working on college-readiness issues, said he expects the White House summit will help raise the awareness of academic preparedness and how that can help with efficiencies at community colleges.
“This is the right time and the right focus for a common understanding of what our students should know coming out of high school,” said Mr. Musgrove, who earlier this year was named to lead the National Assessment of Educational Progress High School Achievement Commission. “Money spent on remediation in college—that’s just wasted money and time and opportunity for students.”
Crucial to Economy
In his opening remarks to the summit attendees, President Obama called community colleges “one of the keys to the future of our economy. ... They may not get the credit they deserve or the same resources as other schools, but they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and better life.”
Jill Biden, a community college instructor and the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, described community colleges as vital to reaching the president’s goal that the country will regain the global lead in the proportion of college graduates by 2020. That push includes a goal of 5 million more graduates from community colleges in the next 10 years.
Summit speakers overlapped in their calls for educators, students, businesses, and nonprofit groups to work together, along with government, to achieve that aim. To that end, the administration unveiled three new initiatives:
• “Skills for America’s Future,” a key recommendation of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board backed by companies such as Gap Inc., McDonald’s, and Accenture, which aims to improve industry partnerships with community colleges and build a nationwide network to maximize workforce development;
• A $34.8 million grant competition funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for community colleges willing to come up with new approaches to make schools more responsive to students; and
• A $1 million Aspen Institute prize for community college excellence, to be given to an institution—and possibly split with some runners-up—beginning next fall.
President Obama’s goal that the United States will lead in college graduates by 2020 is very ambitious and, without more resources, unrealistic, said Thomas Bailey, a summit participant and the director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. But the summit raises the profile of the issue and contributes to the possibility that the country might meet the goal, he said.
“It’s easy to say we need more money,” he said. “People are trying to say: What can we do with the resources we have to increase productivity?”
J. Noah Brown, the president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees, in Washington, and a summit participant, said he was excited about the president’s portrayal of aligning resources with community colleges as an economic imperative.
“This administration has put us in the spotlight like no other—I can’t overstate the importance of this,” said Mr. Brown. “The rest is up to us. Shame on us if we don’t get something done after today.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as Community College Summit Touches K-12 Issues