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Make Higher Education Available to 100% of Americans

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This week's upcoming first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges is all about the lives and future of America's students. During my years as a community college president and chancellor, I always asked my professional colleagues the same simple question whenever we faced a difficult challenge or issue: what is the best way to help students succeed?

That's the key question that will be on the table on Tuesday when President Obama, Second Lady Jill Biden, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis convene this historic gathering of community college students, faculty, presidents, business leaders, unions, philanthropists, members of Congress and other important stakeholders to honor community colleges and help support their mission. This Summit is evidence that the President and the Administration understand the crucial role community colleges must play to achieve the goal he set for our nation: that by 2020 "the United States will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." Community colleges are the gateway to access and opportunity for America's students, for building strong local communities, for keeping our nation in the forefront of the global marketplace, and for opening the doors for all to succeed in the workplace and in life, especially those from underserved and low-income populations.

For decades, I have been privileged to lead and support community colleges to transform the lives of our students. As you can see, I believe deeply in the purpose and power of community colleges to change the lives of Americans for the better. Our social and economic prosperity as a nation depends on leaders at all levels who are educated. Our nation needs highly trained plumbers and radiologic technicians just as our nation needs highly educated climate scientists, artists and physicians. To prepare students with the skills, knowledge and critical thinking skills for success, community colleges must partner with four-year universities, business, government and others to make the full range of educational opportunities available to everyone seeking a college education.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan have expressed an unwavering commitment to make higher education available to the top 100% of Americans. Community colleges educate nearly half of the nation's undergraduates, but not enough community college students are earning degrees and certificates. Not enough minority students are graduating. And not enough students from the poorest communities in America are succeeding in higher education. We need to change these facts.

When President Obama signed the Healthcare and Education Reconciliation Act which enabled us to implement Direct Lending, that single action of Congress has already resulted in thousands more Americans entering higher education because of the availability of Pell grants. These federal grants have enabled students from low-income families to go to college, students whose families believed a college education would not have been possible.

So we're at a crossroads. We've made progress to increase access to college, though not nearly enough, but we have put our intellectual capital and energies together to change the fact that today only 25% of community college students earn degrees or certificates, or successfully transfer to our universities for their baccalaureate degrees.

We have to challenge the status quo and change these facts as quickly as we can, without compromising quality. The challenge ahead of us is to increase college access, quality and completion so millions more Americans are able to fully participate in the civic life of our country and contribute to an economy that stimulates a democratic society second to none.

I am delighted to be part of the broad cross section of committed citizens coming together for this historic summit -- community college campus leaders represented by faculty, staff, administrators and students, as well as members of the business community, foundations, unions, researchers, policy makers, and others who will bring diverse perspectives and innovative ideas to inform and inspire us to increase college access and affordability AND realize higher levels of education attainment.

With more than 1,100 community colleges around the country, we knew that many more people than could fit in one room would be eager to participate -- and we were eager for their views and voices to be heard! Anyone who wants to participate can go to WhiteHouse.gov/communitycollege to post a comment, send in a video, or ask a question. We've also created a special online White House forum for others to participate during the summit, and will be live-streaming the opening and closing sessions.

I'm especially thrilled to know that many community colleges are interested in hosting their own summits on October 5th -- including local stakeholders in the conversation is the best way to keep the focus on the education and workforce training issues relevant to your own communities.

In almost every speech I give, I call for more collaboration to achieve our shared goals. If all of us work together to overcome these challenges, more students will succeed. The White House Summit on Community Colleges is a fantastic step to move our nation toward that goal!

This post originally appeared at the White House Blog.