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By 2020, the U.S. will rank first in the world in the number of citizens with college degrees. That’s the goal set by the Obama administration.
Some people may be startled to learn that the U.S. currently ranks ninth, so the challenge is steep. But Martha Kanter, the under secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, believes that community colleges are particularly well-poised to help reaffirm both America’s chances for economic opportunity and to regain our leadership as the world’s most-educated country.
In March, the U.S. Department of Education hosted one of several regional community college summits to help spread the word about the bold initiative. Kanter joined about 150 college presidents, regents and board members, and community college leaders in Houston at the Lone Star College System, one of the fastest-growing in the country, to learn and share what elements will be essential if we are to grow by 5 million additional associate degrees by 2020.
The emphasis for the Houston summit was on the critical need to ensure that colleges and universities are doing all they can to provide seamless transfers for community college students to achieve bachelor’s degrees. As leaders of community colleges, we were challenged at the summit to make sure that our students are succeeding, and that we are not wasting their time or their money with unnecessary bureaucracy or obstacles to achieve their goal of completing college. Students who enter college and fail to achieve an associate degree or to transfer for a baccalaureate are not examples of success, but rather an unprecedented documentation of failure.
The plan for each college must be bi-lateral. Institutions must attract new populations to college and ensure that those who come succeed. To help them succeed, we must mitigate financial, bureaucratic and lifestyle barriers that confront most community college students. In Oklahoma, we have unified as a system to facilitate transferability, data-sharing among institutions, and legislative consent for statewide tuition support for lower income families. Everyone agrees education is the most direct path for economic growth in our state.
In another example of statewide efforts to grow per capita degree attainment to reach the president’s goal, we are offering residents the opportunity to take whatever college credits they may have unfulfilled toward a degree and build on them for quickest route to an associate or bachelor’s degree. The Reach Higher program requires the participation and support of every public college and university in the state. Because the goal is large, the solutions have to be larger and touch everyone.
As a community college president attending the summit, my commitment to President Obama’s goal was not just renewed but altered. For years, I have been committed to the cause of college access. Access, I believed, changed lives. That’s why I have worked to make our college a leader in student support by providing full-funding for tuition scholarships to all successful high school graduates in our county through a program called Tulsa Achieves. It is also why we are working as a college to ensure access to minorities, in particular African-Americans and first-generation college students, many of whom lack a role model for college attainment.
But the summit changed my perspective and ultimately, I believe, we must all refocus in order to achieve this important goal. Access to college might change students' perspectives on what they believe they can achieve, but we as leaders must concentrate our efforts on persistence and completion. Only graduation can truly change lives and meet our nation’s needs.
McKeon is president of Tulsa Community College (Oklahoma).
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges