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At White House summit on community colleges, all hands on deck

Next week, the White House hosts a summit on community colleges. The schools, so vital to training and job skills, need support from all sectors of society.

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America’s community colleges are in trouble, which is why the White House and Jill Biden will host a “summit” on the subject next week. The guest list is varied: educators and students, to be sure, but also philanthropists, businesspeople, and federal and state leaders.

The variety is important, because it will take a group effort to strengthen the nation’s largest and most affordable means of higher education.

Given the central role that these two-year colleges also play in job training, they’re especially needed now as the nation grapples with a 9.6 percent unemployment rate and a mismatch of skills in the economy.

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Enrollment at these come-one, come-all schools has surged because of the Great Recession and great expense of private colleges. It’s up 17 percent over the last two years, 30 percent over the last five. Many colleges have added “graveyard shift” or “early bird” classes to accommodate rising demand for courses on plumbing, nursing, or energy management.

Yet their budgets – dependent mostly on state and local revenues – haven’t kept up. State operating revenues for community colleges are flat or negative in 37 states. The $12 billion commitment that the Obama administration made to community colleges in 2009 got whittled down to $2 billion by Congress.

The financial crunch is being acutely felt by students in states such as California, whose community colleges have seen three consecutive years of budget cuts. This is the largest network of community colleges in the nation – and the most affordable, charging only $26 per credit. But the system is turning students away for lack of courses.

Community colleges are underperforming in another important way. About half of their students will drop out before their second year. Only 25 percent finish in three years. Those who do finish need an average of five years to earn their associate degrees.

The trends in job growth show how critical it is to have financially healthy, high-performing community colleges. By 2018, America will need 22 million new college degrees (four- and two-year), but will fall short by at least 3 million, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Even now, certain jobs in the American economy are going begging for skilled employees, people such as machinists and health-care workers. If the nation today had a proper matching of skills with jobs, unemployment would be at 6.5 percent, estimates Narayana Kocherlakota of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.

It will take all sectors of society to strengthen community colleges.

The business community, for sure, because it has a tradition of working closely with community colleges to train students for their specific needs. But many more businesses and corporations will have to get involved, financially and in coordinating with local educators.

Philanthropy, too. Charitable groups such as the Lumina Foundation and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation actively work with community colleges, especially with reforms to raise graduation rates. But less than 1 percent of all voluntary support in higher education goes to community colleges.

Families are going to have to pitch in with higher fees. In the long run, it will be cheaper to pay $10 more per credit in California than to get bumped to part-time status because there aren’t enough courses.

A huge burden still lies with state and local governments. They must get themselves off the recession roller coaster where the downhill inevitably leads to education cuts. Political leaders, including the federal government, should tie funding to greater accountability at these schools.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a nation to get one through at least a community college or training program.

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