12/07/2012 05:48 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Community Colleges: Investing in American Education

When Hurricane Sandy smashed into New York and New Jersey, it shone a harsh spotlight on the delicate infrastructure we depend on for our everyday lives. Hurricane Sandy made very real the vulnerability of our ports, subway and rail lines and the fragility of how we power our homes, offices and cars. We'll spend billions of dollars on rebuilding, making investments to minimize damage for the next time a storm hits.

Elected officials -- Republicans and Democrats -- will find the money to make sure the rebuilding happens. We will get the job done, as well we should.

But that won't address the slow crippling decline in a very different infrastructure that America depends on -- our people. America's economic growth and resiliency is built upon our success in educating our citizenry. Twenty-five years ago, we had the best-educated nation in the world. That's no longer the case. Sixteen countries now outpace the U.S. in producing college graduates.

Our economy is changing rapidly. We don't yet know the names of the jobs of the future or the skills they will require. Colleges must educate people who will not only succeed in these jobs, but also often create them. Professor Tony Carnevale of Georgetown University confirms that the single most important lever for creating economic opportunity and determines who will get the jobs that command a middle-class salary is education. The almost 30 million middle class jobs in today's job market require education beyond high school -- it will only increase in the future.

In his first term, President Obama focused his political capital on overhauling our health-care system. In the president's second term, he needs to use the same muscle to strengthen America's best product: our people. It is time for the U.S. to invest in the infrastructure that will produce the most rapid and cost-effective changes in college graduation rates -- community colleges.

American community colleges have a long and successful history of combining both the theoretical and practical knowledge needed to produce not only skilled workers that fuel economic recovery, but the innovation and adaptability necessary to respond to seismic shifts in our current job market.

There are plenty of examples.

Lisa Daisey combined her outdoor enthusiasm with the business expertise provided by Delaware Technical and Community College to found Ecobay Kayaking, an educational kayaking company along the Delaware River that is helping to transform the preserve into a place for eco-tourism and education about the ecosystem. Sam Glines worked with St. Louis Community College to found the Norse Corporation, providing new levels of security for cloud computing. William Kolosi worked with Lorrain Community College in Akron, Ohio to help his company LifeMedix continue to develop medical resuscitation devices for civilian and military use. Each of these entrepreneurs created jobs. Why did they turn to community colleges for assistance? Because the colleges are embedded in their communities, connected to the people who are living and working there, and because they provide an education that is both visionary and practical.

Accessibility and affordability are why community colleges succeed. Low tuition is an imperative, but increasingly keeping tuition at a reasonable level is being undermined as local and state governments, which provide about two-thirds of the money that allows community colleges to function, have decreased their support. America has always short-changed her community colleges -- they receive one-third the amount of public dollars given to four-year colleges, and much less than for-profit colleges.

Without a deeper investment, one that requires the federal government to act, the 1,200 colleges across the country will slowly close the door to those who need education the most -- recent high-school graduates, returning veterans, recently unemployed older workers -- all of whom need a path to the middle class. In his first address to Congress, President Obama laid out an ambitious goal: that by 2020 Americans would once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. But the past few years have seen us falling further and further from that goal, none more so than California where we've witnessed a hollowing out of our human capital infrastructure as students are denied admission, classes are cut and students lose the support they need to help them finish college. It is time for President Obama to dust off his American Graduation Initiative, an ambitious proposal offered in his first term to provide more than $12 billion in federal support for community colleges.

In his second term, then, President Obama needs to deepen his commitment to public higher education by investing the dollars needed to strengthen our human capital infrastructure. That will require him to acknowledge the long-term disparity in public support for community colleges. Now is the time to rectify this imbalance.

Jane Wellman, founding director of The Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability, told The New York Times earlier this year, "Community colleges should get more attention and more resources... There's a big problem in that the public institutions that serve the most people have the least money, the poorest students and the greatest needs"

It won't be easy, by any stretch. Once again, we face a divided Congress. As a nation, we're facing a "fiscal cliff," with national debt issues coming to a head in the coming weeks. These budgetary constraints present a formidable challenge to federal and state funding to higher education.

There are also ways to find and secure some of the needed funding. Over the past decade we've watched for-profit colleges enjoy explosive growth as they perfected leveraging public dollars, like Pell grants and tuition assistance for veterans, and giving hands-on help so applicants secure government-subsidized student loans. It's been a poor investment of taxpayer dollars. The value to students is beyond abysmal; a Senate investigation found that $32 billion in federal aid goes to for profits each year, yet more than half drop out within four months of enrolling. Not surprising considering the same report noted that for-profits spent as little as 17 percent on instruction while devoting as much as 42 percent to marketing and executive pay. Given the current state of our economy, the last thing we need is a generation of college graduates who end up like the dropouts of the for-profit institutions: unemployed, heavily in debt and defaulting on their student loans.

The president made frequent campaign stops to community colleges, ending his campaign at one in Colorado. Let's hope that augurs a renewed commitment to ensuring that the limited funds available for higher education are spent wisely and well. Ultimately, it comes to this: do we want an infrastructure, not only of roads, power lines and ports, but of people, that is capable of fueling a more successful economic future for all?