US UnderSecretary of Education: Community Colleges must serve every student with aspirations

Source:  Michael Zitz-Beckham, Germanna Community College

Educators across America are faced with a paradox, U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, a keynote speaker at the 2012 Chancellor’s Planning Retreat told a crowd of 200 at the at Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel & Conference Center.

Funding limitations make change seem risky, she said. But the greatest risk for our students, for our institutions themselves and for our nation would be a failure to change, to experiment, to innovate.

Higher education is in serious need of redesign, she said.

“Our biggest battle is the status quo,” Kanter said. “I think we can do a lot better. So we’re very interested in ideas…”

For example, she said, to increase completion rates the administration is studying ideas such as Pell Grants for short-term training in high-demand fields.

“How do we use the resources we have at the federal government? Should we be giving room and board to online students? That may not seem to make sense. But it makes lot of sense if they don’t have to work as much and finish sooner.”

She noted that there has been much discussion about the need to make higher education more affordable, but that in the process of doing so, quality must be maintained.

Hear the audio from Kanter’s presentation

Kanter praised Virginia Community College System Chancellor Glenn DuBois’ Achieve 2015 goals pertaining to affordability, student success, workforce and resources, saying they could serve as a model for other states. She said Achieve 2015 is ambitious and that higher education must set goals that are difficult to attain, much as the Obama administration has in its 2020 Goal.

That goal is an additional 10 million graduates from community colleges, four-year colleges and universities by 2020  and every American completing at least one year of higher education or advanced training in their lifetime, resulting in the best-educated workforce in the world.

To meet that goal, “We need community colleges to really ramp up their completion rates,” she said.

Kanter said the nation needs to feel the sense of urgency created by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983 report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform.

“That document galvanized American higher education,” she said. “It was a time when people from all walks in higher education came together around something… We could not go back as a country and we were going to have to invest in education at all levels and all sectors to really make a difference.

“I think today it is a terribly, terribly fragile time,” Kanter said. “We have to work in communities. We have to work in partnership… Community colleges have always been very competitive with each other and want to make a mark and we’re regional and all of those things. But it’s a time for us to learn from each other.”

She said that when she was appointed in 2009, she told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that community colleges are a bridge “between people who don’t have jobs and the workforce… [So] I was thrilled when President Obama coined 2020 for the country, saying we are going to rally around a goal that is going to increase opportunity.”

Community colleges must serve “every student who has aspirations, whether they are the 35-year-old woman who raised kids who hasn’t had the chance or a kid who has dropped out of high school,” she said.

Kanter said: “A third of that 2020 goal will be students coming from high school or students who got a GED coming back. But two-thirds are going to be students on your campuses you see every day. They’re going to be students who tried and left and had to work and had to move around the state because the job was going to be in city A rather than city B. … All the reasons they couldn’t afford to be full-time students and had to do it course by course.

“I think the challenge is this: How do you account for the different programs and services these students are going to need? We have such tremendous diversity of students coming into higher education and the community colleges. So many of these students would not have thought of themselves as college material. You’re helping them to understand what it is to be a student in this country­–and what it is to be an American, quite frankly.”