Archived Information

The Linchpin: The New Mission of Community Colleges

Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the White House Summit on Community Colleges


Thank you, Dr. Biden. Your leadership, your knowledge, and your passion about community colleges are without precedent in the hallways of the White House.

Community colleges have never been more important. And they have never been better appreciated and supported in Washington. Secretary Solis, who you will hear from in a moment, won her first elected office as a member of the Rio Hondo Community College board of trustees. And my outstanding undersecretary Martha Kanter is the first community college administrator to serve as Undersecretary at the Department of Education. This first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges is one more sign that community colleges have arrived on the national stage—and are being heard.

This summit is a moment to both celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of community colleges and to take stock of and action on the challenges that lie ahead. For too long, community colleges were underappreciated, underfunded, and misunderstood. Working with modest resources, community colleges now educate almost half of all college students. About half of all first-generation college students and minority students attend community colleges. It is a remarkable record. No other system of higher education in the world does so much to provide access and second-chance opportunities as our community colleges.

In America, education must be the great equalizer. No matter your race, sex, or zip code, everyone deserves a quality education. But until community colleges took hold, higher education in America was largely reserved for the privileged. The landmark Truman Commission report in 1947 said that higher education in the United States could no longer be just "an instrument for producing an intellectual elite" but should provide "the means by which every citizen, youth, and adult, is enabled and encouraged" to pursue higher learning.

The Truman Commission report led to a dramatic expansion of community colleges and the democratization of higher education. As you all know, President Truman wanted community colleges to especially serve the needs of returning servicemen. That was the first mission of community colleges. Now, you have a new mission—a mission to prepare students to compete successfully in the 21 century knowledge economy and participate in civic society.

You are educating the workforce of the future—the radiologic technicians; the registered nurses; the installation experts on solar and wind power; the IT and cyber-security technicians; the displaced workers in need of retraining and new careers; and scientists and other professionals.

President Obama has often said that the nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow. The truth is that we have no choice but to educate our way to a better economy. And in this race to become more competitive, the United States is unfortunately falling behind. Just one generation ago, America had the highest proportion of adults with associates' or bachelors' degrees in the world. Today, among young adults, we are tied for ninth.

If the United States is to meet the President's goal of once again having the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020, community colleges must lead the way. The math is stark. According to our projections, five million of the eight million additional college graduates needed to meet the 2020 goal will be community college graduates. All of higher education must contribute to reaching this goal. But community colleges will be the linchpin.

Now, providing community colleges with more resources and support is essential to meeting the 2020 goal. But the message today cannot be just about resources. The administration has provided the biggest boost in college aid since at least the days of the GI bill. Since President Obama took office, we have more than doubled the total amount of funding for Pell Grants. In an unusual partnership that has allowed us to break out of traditional federal silos, we are excited to be partnering with Secretary Solis and the Department of Labor to support the new, $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance program for dislocated workers who are returning to community colleges.

Yet despite the unprecedented federal support for community colleges, the financial pinch on community colleges today is brutal—and it is unlikely to fade anytime soon. As Dr. Biden has noted, community colleges today are bursting at the seams. Full-time enrollment at community colleges increased nearly 25 percent in the two-year period from 2007 to 2009. Most revenue for community colleges comes from the states—and state revenue shortfalls stemming from the recession are making it tougher and tougher for community colleges to fulfill their promise of open door enrollment policies.

So today is a beginning, not an end point. Our pipeline to college must be strengthened dramatically, and states and districts are seizing the lead in raising K-12 standards and boosting high school rigor. But just as we need more college-ready students, we also need more student-ready colleges.

When you leave this summit, replicate and take to scale the outstanding examples of community colleges highlighted here today. We have never before had more examples of success of community colleges boosting transfer and graduation rates with a certificate or degree; of schools building partnerships with industry that lead to real jobs; and of effective remedial instruction and online learning. But our students and our nation need success to be the norm, not a sometimes-thing.

In the years ahead, the overarching aim for community colleges must be dramatically boosting college completion and success. This is not about tinkering; it's about transformation. This is not just about getting more students to enroll; it's about getting more students to graduation day. To meet the President's 2020 goal, we project that all institutions of higher education will need to increase their college attainment numbers by 50 percent over the next decade.

Today, only one in four community college students earns a degree or certificate, or successfully transfers to universities for their baccalaureate degrees. That has to change if our nation, our communities, and our students are to thrive and remain competitive in the knowledge economy.

To conclude, I see two great challenges ahead. First, community colleges need to better address the needs of older adults with little or no college experience who are finding it more and more difficult to find meaningful work in the information age.

Ninety-three million adults in the U.S. have basic or below-basic literacy skills—and current programs serve just two million of them. We need to build bridge courses and services from adult education programs to college programs. And we need to eliminate gaps, so that successful completion of one stage in the pipeline moves adult learners up the education and career ladder, especially for ESL students.

Second, we need to systematically reorient the preK-16 system so that federal, state, district, and postsecondary programs to do more to support earning a degree or certificate.

More than 75 percent of all post-secondary students attend public colleges and universities financed largely by the states. What we need is for states to raise the bar; to set clear goals for community colleges based on more accurate measures of college completion.

We need seamless articulation between high schools and community colleges, and between community colleges and universities. Students shouldn't have to take any courses they don't need for a certificate, a degree, or for transfer to a four-year institution.

We need to align high school exit standards and assessments with expectations for entering freshmen. We want every state and community college to have college completion targets—and reward them for improving student success as well as access to college.

And we want to hold our institutions accountable. Historically, many community colleges and universities haven't focused enough on getting students across the finish line with degrees and certificates or moving on to further education. We can no longer afford—as a nation—to lose half of college undergraduates and nearly three-quarters of community college students over a six-year period.

In the era of the global economy, it's not enough just to get to college, as vital as that is. I want to see every institution of higher education setting completion goals—and holding itself accountable to serve their students and make better, more effective use of taxpayer dollars. This year, Tennessee passed groundbreaking legislation to stop providing state support based on head counts—and start providing it based on student success and graduation numbers.

The truth is that one cannot simply round up the usual demographic suspects to explain away differences in attainment rates among similar institutions and similar states. But we don't really have an accurate sense of how well or poorly institutions are performing because we don't track all students who are seeking a degree or certificate. Why is it that, in North Dakota, community college students are twice as likely to graduate as in Montana? Or in Iowa compared to Indiana? Is it the metrics or are the community colleges doing a better job?

Now, these are big challenges. But higher education has met large challenges before—think of Lincoln creating land grant colleges in the midst of the Civil War, and the signing of the GI bill in the waning months of World War II.

From their very beginnings, community colleges have never shrunk from challenges—whether it was working with disadvantaged students, first-generation students, older students, part-time students, or immigrants. And change is underway. The countless students who have succeeded at community college, some of whom are here today, give me tremendous confidence that community colleges can rise to meet the urgent challenges of the 21st century.

For the sake of our students and our nation, let us work together to strengthen community colleges. Let us build the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world, and let us nurture the citizens of tomorrow.