Community Colleges – Road to Building Skills for the 21st Century

Innovation in the 21st century has reshaped the world of work and civil society.  Innovation has redefined the knowledge and skills necessary to support emerging sectors of the economy.  Raising the overall level of educational attainment for all of our citizens is critical and addressing the skills gap in key industries is essential.

Community colleges are uniquely positioned to design their curricula to match local labor market conditions, making them flexible and relevant to today’s economy and job market. They are open access institutions committed to providing job-relevant educational opportunities to a broad population of students in their local communities. And their graduates are finding that they are able to participate in a knowledge-based economy, which demands a far greater level of credentialing and skills development than ever before.

The challenge, then, for the United States and India is to think of ways we can promote more opportunities for our diverse and dynamic populations to access these and other educational opportunities. When we do that, we can begin to provide 21st century job-skills linked to the global economy and responsive to local community needs.

President Obama is looking to community colleges to play a key role in increasing the number of U.S. college graduates and helping more Americans get the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in an increasingly interconnected global world.  In the United States, these institutions enroll more students than any other higher education sector, and almost half of all U.S. undergraduate students attend one of nearly 1,100 community colleges across the country.

Many of those colleges work closely with local employer partners to design course materials that lead to industry-recognized certificates and degrees.  And they are leading the way in preparing graduates for the fastest growing fields in the United States, such as healthcare, applied engineering, and green technologies.

India is faced with the similar challenge of educating its population for rapidly emerging fields, such as automotive and healthcare technologies, and is exploring best practices in the community college model to help prepare Indians for these new jobs.  It is taking steps to enable the development of a national network of community colleges in order to meet workforce demands and sustain its impressive economic growth and social prosperity as a nation.

In February, the U.S. was honored to participate in the International Community College Conference hosted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which focused on creating a network of 200 community colleges with strong ties to industry in order to equip more people with the skills and knowledge to drive India’s future.  Under Minister Pallam Raju’s leadership, the government has established the National Skill Development Agency (NSDA) to coordinate and streamline the skill development efforts of the government and the private sector to achieve the nation’s skilling targets.

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Steps Forward to Improving Quality and Strengthening Accreditation

Every student who wants the opportunity deserves a high-quality postsecondary education. For what? For lifelong success, not only in his or her educational pursuits, but for long-term success in the workforce, in civic life and – ultimately – for the personal and professional rewards that come from living a life of accomplishment, contribution, and satisfaction! At the U.S. Department of Education, we are keenly focused on how to use the various federal levers for change and improvement at our disposal to encourage successful student outcomes and improved educational performance, institutional, state-level and national. As the president has said, we all share responsibility to provide educational opportunity and value. The accreditation community is an important partner in this work and plays a key role both in assuring a basic level of quality and in improving quality.univeristy photo

While the United States has some of the world’s best postsecondary institutions, we also have too many that are of poor quality, with track records that give their students little chance of attaining the postsecondary credentials and preparation that they intended to earn—and that are so vital in today’s society and economy.  The College Scorecard that we introduced earlier this year highlights the differences among different institutions related to net price, degree completion and student debt repayment all too starkly. Making performance transparent is a lever we are using to highlight success and fix the most pressing of our problems.

But these indicators are only indicative of a part of educational performance.  We also need to know whether students are successfully achieving the level of learning they need for lifelong success in work, civic participation, and life.  And we need to ensure that high-quality learning is affordable.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan are strongly committed to strengthening collaboration for results with the nation’s diverse accreditation stakeholders to clarify, simplify and improve accreditation processes, with a more targeted, rigorous focus on value and affordability. When President Obama announced his proposals for the FY2014 budget, he called on the accreditation community to work with the Administration to:

“…consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.”

Responding to recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), last week our Department announced its intention to strengthen and better focus the accrediting agency recognition process.  Eight regional and 47 national accrediting organizations seeking renewal of their recognition from the federal government will benefit from a streamlined review process, which will focus in more depth on about 25 of up to 93 criteria that are most relevant to assessing institutional quality and the quality of student learning. This will result in a better, more targeted process that is simpler and less burdensome for accrediting agencies, NACIQI and the federal government. It is our hope and expectation that these improvements will also enable the postsecondary institutions they accredit to focus additional time and effort on quality enhancement and value.

With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act commencing next year, the Department is also eager to engage in broader conversations with the postsecondary education community and its stakeholders (e.g., students, families, businesses, non-profits, states, philanthropies, etc.) about proposals to improve the accreditation processes to increase quality—with particular attention to value and affordability.

If we define value as high quality at an affordable cost, how can we help to ensure that we achieve it?  We are looking to the accreditation community and stakeholders to help us understand and measure such concepts as “quality,” “affordability” and “value” in ways that honor and preserve the diversity of our postsecondary landscape, yet hold all of us accountable for learning and completion outcomes and their improvement. We need far more attention to qualitative and quantitative methods that can strengthen institutional quality and student learning outcomes.

This effort to strengthen the accreditation process is just one example of how the Department is working to improve quality, while also increasing access, affordability, and completion. We will also continue to address value by encouraging innovation, whether through new developments in competency-based education, new validation models that can demonstrate what students know and can do, new attention to the faculty role in high quality learning, and/or alternative accreditation systems designed to produce high quality student outcomes at an affordable price. Experimentation, innovation and reliable evidence must drive the effort to achieve better student outcomes, both in terms of completion and in terms of demonstrated achievement; thus the great need for more and better postsecondary R&D.

In the months ahead, we look forward to engaging in an ongoing and robust national dialogue with our partners and stakeholders about accreditation and other ways we can improve quality in America’s postsecondary education, with a far clearer understanding of, and focus on, value and affordability.

Martha J. Kanter is the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and David Soo is a Policy Advisor for the Office of the Under Secretary.

Finding the Right College For You – Tools & Resources from ED

If you are a high school senior who has yet to decide where you’re going to college this fall, you are most likely not alone. May 1st marks the National College Decision Day where the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities require students to notify them of their decision to attend.

As you navigate the college decision process, the U.S. Department of Education provides tools for you and your family to make it easy to compare important information such as college costs, average student loan debt, and graduation rates across different institutions.

If you are a student or the parent of a college-bound teen struggling with this decision, here are a few tools that can help:

Federal Student Aid The College Scorecard

The College Scorecard includes essential information about a particular college’s cost, its graduation rates and the average amount its students borrow, all in an easy-to-read format. It is designed to help you compare colleges and choose one that is well-suited to your individual needs.

Net Price Calculator Center

Federal Student Aid

The Net Price Calculator Center provides an easy tool to explore the net price of any given college- that is, the price after subtracting the scholarships and grants you are likely to receive. Then, you can easily compare estimated net prices across the institutions that you are considering.

Financial Aid Shopping Sheet

Many colleges and universities have adapted a Shopping Sheet which will be included in your financial aid package. The Shopping Sheet provides personalized information on financial aid and net costs as well as general information on institutional outcomes- all in a standardized format. This tool provides an easy way to make clear comparisons among financial aid offers that you may receive.

FSA2

College Navigator

College Navigator is an interactive website that allows you to explore and compare features of different institutions, including programs and majors, admissions considerations, campus crime statistics and more.

For additional tips visit Federal Student Aid’s Choosing a School resources and follow @USEDGOV & @FAFSA on Twitter.

Now that you have the resources and the tools to pick the right college, you can let out a sigh of relief and show your campus pride with that coveted university sweatshirt. Congratulations!

Kelsey Donohue is a senior at Marist College (N.Y.), and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Making College Safety a Factor in Decision Making

With National College Decision Day (May 1st), just around the corner, many students along with their parents are making the difficult decision on which college to attend in the fall. What factors play a role in this decision? For students it might be the academic reputation of the school, employment opportunities after graduation, and financial assistance. But what about campus safety? Can this also be a factor in the college decision?

Finding information on campus safety is easier than you’d expect. College campuses that receive Title IV funding from the Department of Education must comply with the Clery Act by collecting and publishing the last three years of their campus crime statistics as well as developing and implementing security policies for a safe campus. Statistics for each college and university are available to view on the Department of Education’s website.

sexual assault awareness month ribbon

With April designated National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month by President Obama, it reminds us that college-age women are at the greatest risk of an attempted or completed rape. While these statistics about sexual assaults should be captured accurately, some assaults remain unreported or misclassified. When that information is inaccurate, it leads to a false sense of personal security.  And while there are many factors that could be contributing to underreporting, it can be exacerbated by a campus culture that is still adjusting to Federal regulation regarding Clery reportable crimes.

The Department of Education believes school safety is a requirement to ensure students have access to education free from harm. The Department enforces colleges’ compliance through program reviews conducted by Federal Student Aid’s Clery Act Compliance Division and investigations by the Office of Civil Rights.  If Clery violations are found, the Department makes findings which the school must address and correct, in addition to potential financial penalties for those infractions.

Parents and students can investigate the reported safety of the campus not only through the Department’s website, but also by reviewing the college’s annual security report located on the college’s website.  Through program reviews and additional assistance, the Department is working with colleges and universities to improve reporting procedures and campus awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault.  Together, we are working to create a campus culture that is more supportive and safe for students.

Lauren Bloom is a budget analyst in Budget Service within the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development and works on the Student Aid Administration account.

Celebrating Excellence in Community Colleges

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

As a community college teacher, I know that excellence happens every day in community college classrooms and campuses across this country. Both in my classroom and when I’m on the road visiting community colleges, I am fortunate to see firsthand the tremendous impact these schools have on so many students. I see students striving, teachers inspiring, and administrators innovating – each doing their best to make the community college experience richer and more meaningful. President Obama has made community colleges a centerpiece of his goal to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world.

Earlier today at the Newseum in Washington, DC, leaders in education and business congratulated Santa Barbara City College from California and Walla Walla Community College from Washington for being selected as co-winners of the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Kingsborough Community College – CUNY from New York and Lake Area Technical Institute from South Dakota were honored as finalists-with-distinction.

Dr. Biden at the Aspen Prize

Dr. Jill Biden with the co-winners of the 2013 Aspen Community College Excellence Prize: Santa Barbara Community College President Dr. Lori Gaskin (left) and Walla Walla Community College President Dr. Steven VanAusdle (right). (by Photo from Patrice Gilbert/Courtesy: The Aspen Institute)

Community colleges represent a uniquely American idea – that if you work hard and get a good education, you can get the skills you need for a good job and build a better life for you and your family. Community colleges are often unsung heroes in their work to expand opportunities, offer intensive preparation for careers, and provide an affordable and effective option for many students.  Education and job training are critical to that vision, strengthening the middle class and preparing our citizens to compete in the global economy.  Each and every day, community colleges are doing more to grow our middle class, equipping our citizens with the education and training that today’s jobs require.

Our Administration is working to advance locally-tailored solutions to fill in skills gaps where our local economies need them. Nearly three years ago, we held the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, where we announced the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

In the past few years, our Administration has taken important steps to make incentive prizes and challenges, like the Aspen Community College Excellence Prize, a standard tool for open innovation in every Federal agency’s toolbox. Federal agencies, in partnership with our private-sector and philanthropic partners, are using prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their missions. In fact, since its launch in 2010, Challenge.gov has featured more than 240 prizes offered by over 50 Federal departments and agencies.

The Aspen Prize is designed to honor and recognize excellence in community colleges through evaluation of academic and workforce outcomes in both absolute performance and improvements over time. By focusing on student success and lifting up models that work, the Aspen Prize honors excellence, stimulate innovation, and create benchmarks for measuring progress – highlighting the “best of the best” and giving other schools the opportunity to consider adapting those best practices to their own campuses.

In December 2011, Valencia Community College from Orlando, FL was announced as the first Aspen Prize winner and Valencia is now a model for other community colleges across the nation.  Last year, I had the opportunity to visit Valencia and learn more about the success they are having in improving student outcomes while they are in school at Valencia and when they graduate.

Josh Wyner, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, shared more of what made this year’s winners exceptional: “At Santa Barbara City College, faculty and staff are providing students just what they need to transfer and complete a four-year degree – a rigorous classroom education surrounded by first-rate supports from remedial math to college level writing. Walla Walla Community College’s visionary leaders stay on top of local economic job trends and job growth, and the entire college provides the kind of excellent training that students need to access well-paying jobs and that employers know will ensure future investments in the regional economy will pay off.”

Congratulations to this year’s winners and finalists, and thank you to the Aspen Institute, the supporters of the Aspen Prize, and the many people who worked so hard to help these institutions get the recognition they deserve.

Dr. Jill Biden is the Second Lady of the United States and a lifelong educator. 

Silicon Valley Works to Improve Career Pathways for Community Colleges Students

Kanter at Google

Under Secretary Martha Kanter speaks with students during her visit to Google headquarters. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

With a putting green, 18 cafeterias, gardens and even a giant statue of a dinosaur, one may not associate Google’s massive headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., as a place where Department of Education officials, educators and business leaders come together to discuss career pathways for community college students.

Yet during a recent stop by U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, the novelty of Google’s complex were the last thing on the mind as leaders from Google, Cisco Systems, Lockheed Martin—Space Systems and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group came together for a panel discussion on innovative strategies to improve career pathways for community college students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The 90-minute discussion – in front of a large audience comprised of regional industry leaders, community college presidents, K-12 educators, local policymakers and students – included Kanter’s detailed description of the Obama Administration’s support of STEM education at community colleges, highlighting the $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training grant program that funds the pairing of community colleges with workforce partners to ensure that graduates are career-ready with the knowledge and skills that employers need.

Kanter speaks with educators at GoogleAfter the formal program and a Q-and-A session ended, many of the participants stayed to continue the discussion. Dennis Cima, senior vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an association of 380 Silicon Valley employers, talked about the value of linking K-12 schools, community colleges and businesses.

“We know how important it is to create connections between education and industry,” Cima said. “Because once those connections are made, then industry has the ability to really help education fill its own needs. This was an opportunity to open people’s eyes about how important those public-private partnerships are.”

Google’s director of education and university relations, Maggie Johnson, who was a panelist, said that she found the session to be a good start because it brought the right people together.

“I really liked the part that came out around how there are very many different sectors that need to come together and coordinate in order to really make something happen,” Johnson said. “We got the community colleges in the room; we have industry; we have government. So at least we got everybody in the room. Where it goes from here, we’ll have to see.”

Kanter’s assessment of the value was similar to Johnson’s. “I think it was the beginning of what I hope will become a call to action, so the different sectors of education, business, philanthropy, government, labor, and community partners can come together to say, ‘How can these stakeholders – working together across sectors – architect a plan for this region to lead the way, through innovation, to make sure that every student gets the best possible education and is prepared, college-and-career ready, for the jobs now and for the future?’”

Joe Barison is the Director of Communications and Outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.

It’s Never Too Late to Learn

Two young men, from different backgrounds, each tell a tragically similar story of their mistakes, which resulted in felony convictions and incarcerations. Their names aren’t important, but their stories are.

Both men are using education to take charge of their futures and be productive citizens.

During a recent trip to Iowa, Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education Brenda Dann-Messier and I met these men and several more like them, trying to make positive changes in their lives through education. We spent a day learning about adult education and corrections training programs in Cedar Rapids, before traveling to Dubuque for the Rural Community College Association’s annual conference.

Group Photo

Deputy Warden Bill Sperfslage, Anamosa Education Coordinator Mary Feeney-Wilfer, Kirkwood Community College High School Completion Director Marcel Kielkucki, Deputy Director of Offender Services Jerry Bartruff (front row) Kirkwood C.C. Executive Director of Government Relations Steve Ovel, Warden John Fayram, Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier, Deputy Assistant Secretary John White outside the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa.

Having served their sentences and exited the correctional system, these two men now support each other and their fellow classmates in Kirkwood Community College’s Kirkwood Pathways for Academic Career Education and Employment (KPACE) program.

Kirkwood seeks to help lower-skilled, low-income adults, the unemployed and underemployed advance to successively higher levels of education, employment, and financial stability through the KPACE program. KPACE weaves together basic skills and workplace-readiness training, academics and certification attainment with support services through partnerships with the United Way of East Central Iowa and community-based organizations.

Believing that everyone’s situation is unique, Kirkwood has taken bold steps beyond simply offering courses and certifications. Kirkwood and its community partners, including United Way, are working with formerly incarcerated adults to make a successful re-entry into society.

According to the National Reentry Resource Center, federal and state corrections facilities held more than 1.6 million prisoners at the end of 2010 – approximately one of every 201 U.S. residents. At least 95 percent of state prisoners will be released back to their communities at some point.

The U.S. Department of Education recently released a new resource, Take Charge of Your Future, to help justice-involved adults connect to education and training opportunities. ED also provides funding for efforts to reduce recidivism by supporting in-prison education services through two formula grant programs: the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006. A federal Office of Correctional Education was created in 1991 by the Perkins Act and currently resides in ED’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

Rapid increases in the U.S. prisoner population over recent decades have increased the need for educational services in correctional settings.

Inside and outside of Iowa’s Anamosa State Penitentiary, a maximum/medium security institution that currently houses more than 1,150 offenders, we witnessed the hope that literacy and job skills training can bring.

The Iowa Department of Corrections and Kirkwood Community College are working together to offer inmates opportunities to earn a GED, learn computer skills and programs, including the production and printing of books in brail for the blind, and trades that include welding and carpentry while behind bars.

Kirkwood is also working with its community partners to help ex-offenders find stable employment and housing—other key success factors—upon re-entry. Two hundred businesses have committed to hiring Kirkwood students, including ex-felons. The Corporation for National and Community Service’s AmeriCorps program and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) are providing social and educational services, and helping the community work on prison re-entry issues.

Community colleges have long offered innovative and valuable career training opportunities for youth and adults of all ages and in various stages of their lives. Kirkwood is offering solutions for safer communities through education and public-private partnerships.

John White is deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education. 

From Farming to the Forefront of Education: A College President’s Story

Rend Lake College President Holds a Tree

Rend Lake College President Terry Wilkerson demonstrates a process to agriculture students in a photo from his teaching days. Photos courtesy of Rend Lake College

As a teen growing up on his family’s 1,000-acre farm in southeastern Illinois, Terry Wilkerson had no plans to go college.

“At that point in my life, I didn’t see the value of an education.  I just needed to get to farming and to making a living,” said Wilkerson, recently named the president of Rend Lake College in Ina, Illinois, site of Special Assistant for Community College Sue Liu’s Sept. 19 visit during the Department’s back-to-school bus tour.

However, he never completely closed his mind to the possibilities of higher education. After much hounding by friends and family, Wilkerson registered for some classes at RLC.

“I got curious to see what it would do for me,” he explained. “The college was close to home and the class times were flexible. I could still farm.”

Wilkerson meets with others

Wilkerson, right, speaks with Special Assistant for Community Colleges Sue Liu and RLC Applied Science and Advanced Technology Division Chair Chris Nielsen during a Sept. 19 visit to Rend Lake College as part of the Back-to-School Bus Tour. Photo courtesy of Rend Lake College

For the first time, Wilkerson found himself in a room full of people who were really interested in developing a deeper understanding of agriculture, and he realized that he wanted that too. It was a good fit:  he went on to earn an associates degree in applied science at RLC; followed by a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science and a master’s degree in agronomy, both from nearby Southern Illinois University.

He continued to farm as he pursued his college education, and successfully used knowledge he gained in school to improve his farming practices. Wilkerson soon realized that he wanted to help other farmers and future farmers to also thrive in the changing agricultural industry. He’d stayed in contact with RLC staff members, and soon landed a faculty position in the agriculture program.

“Teaching is a lot like farming. Every year there’s a new crop, and you help it grow,” said Wilkerson. “I enjoyed bringing practical lessons I learned on the farm to the classroom.”

After teaching for 11 years and then serving 4 years as RLC’s chair of the Applied Science and Technology Division, Wilkerson was selected by the college’s board to serve as its president, beginning this past July. While he’d never dreamed of achieving his current position as a teen, he’s found that the same fundamental lessons learned from a lifetime of farming help him in his role as the top executive of Rend Lake College.

“If it’s time to plant corn, it’s time to plant corn. You can’t be stagnant and do nothing,” said Wilkerson, who still farms. “Education is like that. If you stand still, you fall behind.

Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office. 

Day Two Iowa: Improving Rural Economies & Transforming CTE

Richard Rice, a Hawkeye Community College student, shows Secretary Duncan a sculpture he designed in class. Official Department of Education photo by Paul Wood.

Richard Rice, a Hawkeye Community College student, shows Secretary Duncan a sculpture he designed in class. Official Department of Education photo by Paul Wood.

“I hadn’t taken an algebra class in 40 years,” community college student Jennifer DeLange told Secretary Duncan yesterday morning at a White House Rural Council Roundtable in Waterloo, Iowa. DeLange spent years working in a plastics factory, but when the plant shut down, she found herself unemployed in a tough job market. With the help of Trade Adjustment Assistance, DeLange enrolled at Hawkeye Community College and is working her way through the school’s LPN program.

The Hawkeye roundtable discussion was the first event during the second day of Duncan’s visit to the Midwest, and included Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Executive Director for the Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers at the Department of Labor, Jay Williams, as well as students, faculty and business leaders.

The roundtable discussion centered on the importance of improving rural economies by training and retraining workers for in-demand careers.  During the discussion, Williams spoke to the importance of career training, explaining that “not everyone is going to get a four-year degree, but you have to have skills beyond high school.” Read more about the Obama Administration’s Community College to Career proposal that would train two million workers for in jobs in high-demand industries.

Transforming Career and Technical Education

Duncan’s second stop of the day was at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Iowa, where he joined Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, to release the Obama Administration’s blueprint for transforming Career and Technical Education (CTE).

“It’s no surprise that rigorous, relevant, and results-driven CTE programs are vital to preparing students to succeed in the global economy of the 21st century,” Duncan said at the event.

Through a $1 billion investment in the Obama Administration’s FY 2013 budget, the Administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing the Perkins Act will transform the Perkins program in four key areas:

    • Alignment: Ensuring that the skills taught in CTE programs reflect the actual needs of the labor market so that CTE students acquire the 21st century skills necessary for in-demand occupations within high-growth industry sectors.
    • Collaboration: Incentivizing secondary schools, institutions of higher education, employers, and industry partners to work together to ensure that all CTE programs offer students high-quality learning opportunities.
    • Accountability: Requiring CTE programs to show, through common definitions and related performance measures, that they are improving academic outcomes and enabling students to build technical and job skills.
    • Innovation: Promoting systemic reform of state-level policies to support effective CTE implementation and innovation at the local level.

Assistant Secretary Dann-Messier, who outlined the four key areas above, explained that “our federal investment in CTE must be dramatically reshaped to fulfill its potential to prepare all students, regardless of their background or circumstances, for further education and cutting-edge careers.”

Click here to read more about the Blueprint and for related resources, read our post from day one of Duncan’s trip, and check out our Storify Story from day two.

Sharing Responsibility for College Affordability, Quality and Completion

One of the best parts of my job is the chance I get to meet outstanding academic and student leaders as I travel around the country.  For me, the best moments often come right before or after I deliver my formal remarks, when I get to visit with faculty, administrators and students at my speaking location one-on-one, find out who they are and learn about their challenges, hopes and dreams. These individual informal chats never last long enough for me, and they are the moments I remember most from each visit.

During my recent visit to Palm Beach State College, I had the opportunity to discuss the higher education proposals President Obama announced in his State of the Union address, with students, professors, policy makers, state and local officials, business and community leaders. I felt a great source of pride in describing what we’ve been able to accomplish in higher education over the past few years:

    • Reforming the student loan program,
    • Boosting the maximum Pell grant by more than $800 and dramatically expanding the number of Pell grant recipients from 6 million to more than 9 million students from our nation’s lowest income families,
    • Enabling Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to build capacity with the $2.55 billion 10-year fund for MSIs, and
    • Providing $2 billion dollars for next generation job-training at community colleges over the next few years, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor.

As you can see, the President’s education vision for 2020 and beyond inspires me every day to build on this substantial progress and to breakthrough the obstacles ahead to keep college affordable for the middle class, to provide students more opportunities through campus based aid and work study reforms, to enable postsecondary institutions to innovate and implement those high impact strategies that will help more students succeed, and to support states to increase their support for higher education – all for the purpose of increasing our nation’s college attainment goal.

The President has proposed a $1 billion Race to the Top for College Affordability and Completion to help states and a $55 million First in the World fund for institutions. Why? We need states and institutions as well as the federal government and students themselves to share responsibility to meet our vision to produce a far better educated citizenry than we’ve had in decades past. We need a more highly educated workforce, and we need leaders at all levels of government, business, labor and the non-profit sector to bring our nation to a level of excellence in our global society that sadly we do not enjoy today.

In all of this work, please know it’s the series of tiny “aha” moments that, when taken together, create the momentum that move us forward. After I left Palm Beach State, I received an email from Carlos Ramos, the university’s Associate Dean of Math, Engineering, and Science who wanted to learn about a new resource I mentioned, a set of free high quality STEM-related college level textbooks that Rice University’s Connexions project is rolling out in the next few months in association with a new organization called OpenStax College.

For me, Dean Ramos’s communication was more than a simple email.  It was a statement that my visit mattered — and that because of my visit, Dean Ramos will now be able to help more students in more ways.  And that is the way real change happens, one by one, on the ground, by meeting individual student needs, one student at a time. Whether we call it “shared responsibility” as we heard in the State of the Union, or working together from the one to the many as Dean Ramos is doing, we will become a better nation if we all do our part to keep college affordable, increase educational quality at all levels, and help more students graduate from our colleges and universities with a world-class education, prepared for success in the 21st century!

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education

2013 Education Budget: What it Means For You

Continuing its commitment to education and an America built to last, the Obama Administration released its 2013 budget proposal to Congress today. It includes new education investments that will give U.S. students and workers the education and training they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

Budget ImageThe Department of Education is requesting $69.8 billion in discretionary funding for Fiscal Year 2013, an increase of $1.7 billion, or 2.5 percent, from 2012. The critical investments in education are part of an overall federal budget that abides by very tight spending caps that reduce discretionary spending by $1 trillion over 10 years and, including that amount, has more than $4 trillion of balanced deficit reduction.

But what, exactly, does this mean for you?

Job Training to Meet the Demands of the Workforce
Helping students, employers and communities.

Two million jobs are waiting to be filled in the United States, yet many Americans seeking work don’t have the necessary skills to fill those jobs. To close that skills gap and deliver employers the kinds of workers they want to hire, the Administration is proposing $8 billion for a new Community College to Career Fund.

These funds would help community colleges become community career centers where individuals can learn the skills that local businesses need. Additionally, employers would offer paid internships for low-income students to help them learn skills on the job and gain experience.

ED is also proposing to invest $1.1 billion to support the reauthorization and reform of the Career and Technical Education program to ensure that the training and education our students receive are in line with the demands of the workforce.

Boosting the Teaching Profession
Giving teachers the respect and support they deserve.

ED is proposing $5 billion in competitive funding to support states and districts as they pursue bold reforms that can help better prepare, support and compensate America’s teachers.

The Department would also invest $190 million for a new Presidential Teaching Fellows program that would provide scholarships to talented students who attend top-tier teacher prep programs and commit to working in high-need schools.

The budget also creates $620 million in new grants for states that would reward and support highly effective teacher preparation programs, help decrease STEM teacher shortages, and invest in efforts to enhance the teaching profession.

Making College Affordable
Ensuring that everyone gets a shot at higher education.

The 2013 budget seeks to make college more affordable and to help achieve President Obama’s goal of the U.S. leading the world in college graduates by 2020.  The budget proposes to sustain the maximum Pell Grant and increase the maximum award amount to $5,635, supporting nearly 10 million students across the country.

The Department is proposing to freeze the interest rate on subsidized student loans at 3.4 percent. Currently the rate is scheduled to double to 6.8 percent this summer if Congress doesn’t act.

The budget seeks to tackle college costs and quality by encouraging shared responsibility among states, colleges, families and the federal government. ED would invest $1 billion for a new Race to the Top focusing on college affordability and completion to drive reform at the state level and help students finish faster. This new Race to the Top would provide incentives for colleges to keep costs under control, it would double the number of work-study jobs, and it would increase by nearly $7.5 billion the amount available for Perkins loans.

Additional Budget Information:

Teaming Up to Support Rural Community Colleges

It’s no secret that community colleges are leading the way to achieving the President’s goal for the United States to once again have the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020. Community colleges are hubs for career-training, re-training, adult education and for recent high school graduates seeking a pathway into the careers of their choice.

Secretary Duncan, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and their agencies are working together to support community colleges as they provide postsecondary education and career training in rural areas. Photo courtesy of USDA.

For many residents of rural areas, community colleges also provide the closest access to postsecondary education and a way to obtain the skills needed for existing jobs.  However, like some of their students, many rural community colleges are doing more with less as state budgets are being cut and new resources are becoming harder to find.

During the 2011 rural community colleges conference in Oklahoma, many attendees asked about funding and resources available from the Department of Education but few were as familiar with opportunities in other federal agencies. Some rural community college administrators were unaware of the significant infrastructure of support available through their USDA Rural Development state and local offices.

As the American Jobs Act languishes in Congress, preventing an infusion of $5 billion for modernization from reaching community colleges, the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture are working together to guide campuses serving high-poverty rural communities to existing federal resources.

During a recent conference call with members of the Rural Community College Alliance and the American Association of Community Colleges, nearly 100 participants learned about USDA Rural Development programs and funding opportunities that can be used to improve facilities, support distance learning, and provide home ownership assistance as a recruitment and retention tool for faculty.

The USDA Community Facilities Program can be used for construction and renovation of classrooms and dormitories, and even to purchase transportation vehicles to serve campus facilities. The USDA Single Family Housing Programs provide homeownership opportunities to low- and moderate-income rural Americans through several loan, grant, and loan guarantee programs.

USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants can cover the cost of equipment for video conferencing and other distance learning equipment. USDA’s Community Connect program provides grants to build broadband Internet infrastructure and establish community centers to offer free public access in rural areas where broadband service is least likely to be available, but where it can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life for citizens.

These are a few of the ways that USDA can support rural communities, and the Department of Education is working to increase awareness of how college leaders can access these opportunities.

John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach