WASHINGTON – Community college leaders convened at the White House Tuesday for the first community college summit to discuss ways to strengthen the education system.
Educators discussed such ideas as simplifying the admissions and financial aid processes,making credits easier to transfer to four-year colleges,creating more defined learning plans and reconsidering Pell Grant eligibility.
“Community colleges are uniquely American – places where anyone who walks through the door is one step closer to realizing the American dream,” said Jill Biden,the vice president's wife and a professor at a community college in Virginia.
President Barack Obama also spoke at the event,echoing Biden's praise of community colleges.
“These are the places where anyone with a desire to learn and to grow can take a chance on a brighter future for themselves and their families – whether that's a single mom,or a returning soldier or an aspiring entrepreneur,” Obama said.
Community college leaders from across the country discussed successful programs already in place and how to export them to other colleges.
For example,the financial aid department of Connecticut community colleges moved online. The system walks students through the financial aid process and outlines exactly what they are eligible for. Since the system was put in place,financial aid applications have risen by 160 percent,said Cecilia Rouse,a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Transferring credits to a four-year university presents problems for some students. There is no universal system of requirements for all schools,meaning so some classes aren't accepted for credit at other schools. To combat this issue,community colleges and universities in Arizona are working to align core requirements so students can more easily transfer their credits.
Some community colleges are outlining learning programs and working with local businesses to ensure students are getting the knowledge and skills they need to fill jobs at those companies.
Rouse suggested rethinking eligibility for Pell Grants. The program awards money to students based on financial need,but the amount is decreased if students have a part- or full-time jobs. Most students in two-year colleges hold at least one job.
Formerly known as non-traditional students,these adult students have become so common that they are the new normal,Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said.
They can be a “28-year-old with three kids trying to better their life,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said,or 45- to 55-year-olds who have lost their jobs,as Solis said. Military veterans add another dimension to the group.
To help these students,educators discussed ways to make class time more convenient for students,mostly by creating more online classes. To aid veterans,they discussed the importance of support groups modeled after those found in San Diego,home of a large military population.
“Getting Americans back to work is America's great challenge,” Biden said,adding that community colleges “are giving hope to families who thought the America dream was slipping away.”