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Championing the completion message to staff, faculty

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U.S. Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter and Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, at the opening session of the 2011 NISOD conference.

​AUSTIN, Texas — Martha Kanter carries a photo of a seventh grader she recently met. When the U.S. education under secretary needs encouragement to help her champion the daunting task of increasing the number of college graduates by 2020, she looks at the photo. It reminds Kanter that she wants to see that girl—and her mother—walk at commencement by 2020 to receive their college degrees.

Kanter used that anecdote to convey the college completion message to community college staff and faculty this week, emphasizing the need to focus on quality programs. Community colleges, in part, must work more closely with K-12 to develop or expand innovative programs to keep younger students in school, she said.

“We lose a student every 22 seconds out of high school,” Kanter said, noting dual enrollment is one program that shows promise in engaging students and conveying the value of a secondary and postsecondary education.

Kanter was joined by Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), during the opening session of the annual National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development conference.

A new vision

Some community college officials are concerned that financial belt-tightening in states and the federal government could hamper efforts to increase the number of college graduates, especially by the 2020 target. Kanter emphasized that the fiscal situation should not be a roadblock to progress, and that colleges need to use their current funds more wisely.

Photos from the 2011 NISOD conference opening session​  

Bumphus said that despite budget concerns, two-year college leaders appear optimistic and up to the challenge. The AACC president is in the midst of a national “listening tour" and to date has heard from more than 600 presidents, chancellors, administrators, faculty, staff and others about challenges at their colleges.

​The listening tour is part of AACC’s 21st-Century Initiative. It will include a commission that will review comments from the tour and other sources to make recommendations to help two-year colleges better serve students and their communities. It is expected to release a draft report at the annual AACC conference in 2012.

The U.S. Education Department will release its own report based on its regional summits this spring. One topic that has threaded through all the summits is improving students’ transitions from community colleges to a four-year institutions, Kanter said. Better student orientation programs and streamlining articulation agreements among two- and four-year colleges were a focus, she said. 

Developmental education is another key area that emerged from the summits, as was creating assessments that better gauge what students learn. 

“Testing is broken. Let’s admit that,” Kanter said.

Continued emphasis
 
The Obama administration will continue to look to community colleges as a centerpiece of its college completion agenda. Dr. Jill Biden, who organized the first White House Summit on Community Colleges last October, is planning another tour of community college campuses this fall to gather more ideas related to college completion.
 
Despite budget concerns, the federal government and other organizations are providing new funding for programs that encourage college success. Kanter noted a new $2-billion federal grant program that is focused on training workers who have lost their jobs overseas. She also said the Education Department will soon announce a new grant program to improve early education programs. The under secretary noted that many child-care teachers are trained at community colleges.
 
Such high-profile events and initiatives have garnered national attention for two-year colleges. The White House summit and subsequent Education Department summits have made it easier for community colleges to approach foundations and businesses for support, Bumphus said. In fact, a growing number of such organizations are themselves reaching out to two-year colleges. In his first few months this year as president of AACC, Bumphus has fielded calls from more than 80 organizations that want to partner with the association.
 
Fighting for Pell
 
Although community colleges should expand their missions to include completion, they cannot forget about access. Bumphus and Kanter noted that some congressional leaders want to reduce funding for Pell Grants in their effort to trim federal spending. The grants—which Kanter called a “fundamental centerpiece” of higher education—helps about 3 million community college students.
 
Some federal lawmakers have started to call student aid programs such as Pell Grants a form of welfare. However, Pell Grant advocates have emphasized that the grants are critical to the economic revival of the U.S., as students who could not afford college can use the grants to attain training for skilled jobs. But conveying that message when Congress is focused on cutting the federal deficit won’t be easy.
 
“We have some tough fights ahead of us,” Bumphus said.
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