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Community Colleges: The Gateway to Success

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Yesterday's summit was a moment to both celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of community colleges and to take stock of and action on the challenges that lie ahead. For too long, community colleges were underappreciated, underfunded, and misunderstood. Working with modest resources, community colleges now educate almost half of all college students. About half of all first-generation college students and minority students attend community colleges. It is a remarkable record. No other system of higher education in the world does so much to provide access and second-chance opportunities as our community colleges.

Community colleges have never been more important. They are educating the workforce of the future -- the radiologic technicians; the registered nurses; the installation experts on solar and wind power; the IT and cyber-security technicians; the displaced workers in need of retraining and new careers; and scientists and other professionals.

President Obama set a goal that the United States will once again having the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020. If we are to meet that goal, community colleges must lead the way. The math is stark. According to our projections, five million of the eight million additional college graduates needed to meet the 2020 goal will be community college graduates. All of higher education must contribute to reaching this goal. But community colleges will be the linchpin.

The Obama administration has committed unprecedented federal support for community colleges, but the financial pinch on community colleges is brutal -- and it is unlikely to fade anytime soon. At the same time, full-time enrollment at community colleges increased nearly 25 percent in the two-year period from 2007 to 2009. Most revenue for community colleges comes from the states -- and state revenue shortfalls stemming from the recession are making it tougher and tougher for community colleges to fulfill their promise of open door enrollment policies.

Yesterday's summit was a beginning point, not an end point. We challenged those at the summit to replicate and take to scale the outstanding examples of community colleges. We have never before had more examples of success of community colleges boosting transfer and graduation rates with a certificate or degree; of schools building partnerships with industry that lead to real jobs; and of effective remedial instruction and online learning. But our students and our nation need success to be the norm, not a sometimes-thing.

In the years ahead, the overarching aim for community colleges must be dramatically boosting college completion and success. This is not about tinkering; it's about transformation. This is not just about getting more students to enroll; it's about getting more students to graduation day. To meet the President's 2020 goal, we project that all institutions of higher education will need to increase their college attainment rates by 50 percent over the next decade.

At present, only one in four community college students earns a degree or certificate, or successfully transfers to universities for their baccalaureate degrees. That has to change if our nation, our communities, and our students are to thrive and remain competitive in the knowledge economy.

For the sake of our students and our nation, let us work together to strengthen community colleges. Let us build the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world, and let us nurture the citizens of tomorrow.