Gates gives $35 million to Obama's community college overhaul

At the first ever White House community college summit Tuesday, President Obama announces new grants to help community colleges prepare Americans for new jobs.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama, accompanied by Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, speaks during the White House Summit on Community Colleges Tuesday at the White House in Washington.

President Obama announced the creation of two new competitive grants for community colleges Tuesday – a part of his continuing efforts to reshape community colleges to meet the changing needs of the American economy.

At the first White House Summit on Community Colleges, Mr. Obama said Tuesday that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $35 million “Completion by Design” program will target schools in nine states over five years. In addition, the annual Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence will award $1 million to exemplary community colleges beginning next fall.

Obama's goal is to graduate an additional 5 million community college students by 2020. According to the Census Bureau, 15.2 million Americans 25 years and older currently have a community college degree.

“In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree are going to grow twice as fast as jobs that don’t require college,” Obama said in his opening remarks at the summit. “We will not fill those jobs – or keep those jobs on our shores – without community colleges.”

Community colleges are also an integral part of America's economic recovery, said Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, who hosted the summit.

“Getting America back to work is America’s greatest challenge,” Dr. Biden said in her opening remarks. “And community colleges are critically important to preparing graduates for those jobs.”

The announcement of these two programs follows Obama’s launch yesterday of the “Skills for America’s Future” program, a partnership between community colleges and employers to assist students in developing job-based skills.
“The goal is to ensure that every state in the country has at least one strong partnership between a growing industry and a community college,” Obama said at a meeting of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board Monday.

Obama announced that United Technologies Corporation, Accenture, and The Gap, Inc. have signed on as supporters of the program, and he said he hoped that others would follow suit.

For example, Gap will offer development experiences in interviewing, resume writing, and job shadowing, with a focus on entering retail careers, said Eva Sage-Gavin, executive vice president of human resources and corporate affairs.

She added that Gap Inc. is currently providing all the funding for its $1 million program, aimed at 2,000 community college students beginning in January 2011.

These programs highlight an increased focus on community colleges during the current administration.

Earlier this year, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 included $2 billion for competitive grants for community colleges through 2014. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 also included funding for Pell Grants, workforce training programs, and work-study funds in community colleges.

Biden's presence at the summit was important, said Katherine Boswell, director of the Community College Policy Center. Biden teaches remediation courses at a community college, and for a long time policymakers haven’t wanted to acknowledge and fund these courses at the level they are needed, said Ms. Boswell.

Critics of the summit have questioned why for-profit career colleges were not included. Jean Norris, managing partner at Norton Norris Inc., a Chicago-based higher-education marketing firm, took issue with the fact that these colleges are not “being touted as the example" by the administration.

At the summit, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized in his concluding remarks the need to “be creative” and increase graduation rates among “nontraditional” students, students who work or have families.

“The nontraditional [student] has become the norm,” Secretary Duncan said.

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