WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama used a special White House conference Tuesday to tout the nation's community colleges as offering a path to the American dream for underprivileged citizens and as essential centers for training the 21st-century work force.
He glossed over, however, the serious funding challenges that these institutions face.
Calling community colleges the "unsung heroes" of the U.S. educational system, Obama said that they "provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life."
Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, introduced Obama during the first White House meeting on community colleges. She's been a community college professor for the past 17 years and a tireless advocate for the two-year schools. She spearheaded the daylong event, which brought together educators from across the nation for brainstorming.
"Community colleges are uniquely American, places where anyone who walks through the door is one step closer to the American dream," Jill Biden said during an opening ceremony that featured the unveiling of a $35 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
That donation will set up a grant program for five years whose goal will be to reverse a trend in which roughly half of community college students fail to achieve certificates or associate's degrees.
The White House also announced a new public-private partnership to foster closer links between community colleges and corporate America, labor unions and government agencies. This effort will try to standardize what's worked best at various schools, particularly in creating certified skills that can be recognized across the nation.
The National Association of Manufacturers has pioneered the concept of national recognition and so-called stackable skills for a modern work force. Its Manufacturing Institute already is engaged in three national pilot projects, including one in Winston-Salem, N.C., that recently helped convince Caterpillar Inc. to locate a plant there.
Yet the National Association of Manufacturers, which has been critical of the Obama administration on tax matters, was conspicuously absent from the list of invitees. Association officials confirmed the snub but declined to comment.
"I'd say they've been trailblazers," said David Baime, the senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
His association nonetheless was thrilled to be in the spotlight.
"The event is going to be a red-letter day for community colleges. We have felt for some time that our contributions have not been recognized," Baime said. "Policymakers are still surprised to learn that over 45 percent of all students in higher education attend community colleges in this country."
Obama challenged the educators to help him meet his goal of having the United States recoup by 2020 its position as the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates.
"In just a decade we've fallen from first to ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees. That not only represents a huge waste of potential; in the global marketplace it represents a threat to our position as the world's leading economy," he said.
To meet the president's goal, community colleges will need to have 5 million students graduate either with associate's degrees or certification required by employers. That's a lofty ambition, considering that Obama skirted the issue of declining state and federal funding for community colleges.
In Texas, for example, community colleges are bracing for the worst as the state faces a huge revenue shortfall.
"We don't know how deep the cuts will be. When you see 30-40 percent enrollment growth in the number of students ... what's probably going to happen is a reduction in the (state) appropriation," said Richard Rhodes, who heads El Paso Community College at the Texas-Mexico border. "We're looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of a 30-40 percent reduction in state appropriation per student."
Among his options, Rhodes said, are more belt tightening, tuition hikes and scouring the nation for grant money.
Adding to community colleges' problems are an increasing number of enrollment caps at state universities, funneling more high school graduates into two-year schools.
Record enrollment at community colleges occurs as funding from the 2009 federal economic stimulus program, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is going away.
"I think there is more uncertainty around state budgets than there was a year ago, with the end of ARA funding," said Stephen Katsinas, the director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa. He's also the coordinator of an annual survey on community college needs.
His latest report is due in a few weeks. One key finding will be that the number of states that offer free tuition to the unemployed is shrinking, a growing problem with the national jobless rate at 9.6 percent.
Last year, 11 states said they allowed the unemployed to attend work force training programs or classes for free. In the forthcoming survey, that number will shrink to four: Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, the number of long-term unemployed nationally — 6.2 million through August — remains at levels unseen since the Great Depression.
"What that tells us is that states are really hurting for funds. For community colleges, work force training is an unfunded mandate, and community colleges get no favored status in Workforce Investment Act policy," said Katsinas, who also wasn't invited to the White House conference.
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