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White House holds summit on cash-strapped community colleges

By Sally Holland, CNN
  • The summit will address the role of community colleges in the future of America's workforce
  • Community colleges will receive $2 billion over the next five years
  • Private foundations are also announcing aid

Washington (CNN) -- Community colleges across the United States have seen enrollment figures jump by 24 percent over the past few years, as unemployed workers look to retrain at those institutions, which offer lower tuition compared to their four-year counterparts.

But the recession has forced some of those colleges to cut back on course offerings and put limits on enrollment.

Those issues will be at the core of a White House summit Tuesday hosted by Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden and a community college professor herself. Participants will discuss the impact of community colleges in developing America's workforce and explore ways to reach President Barack Obama's goal of an additional 5 million community college degrees and certificates by the year 2020.

"Unfortunately, because of the burden the recession has placed on state and local budgets, community colleges have been forced to cap enrollments and scrap courses, and even in the best of times, they receive far less funding than four-year colleges and universities," Obama said Monday at a meeting of his Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

He also announced the launch of a new program called "Skills for America's Future" -- an initiative "to improve industry partnerships with community colleges to ensure that America's community college students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the workforce," according to a White House statement.

"The idea here is simple: we want to make it easier to connect students looking for jobs with businesses looking to hire," Obama said. "We want to help community colleges and employers create programs that match curricula in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom."

The plan will make available more than $2 billion in competitive funds to community colleges over the next four years, the White House said.

At Tuesday's summit, other financial help will be announced. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to invest $34.8 million over the next five years for a program called Completion by Design. The money will come in the form of grants to groups of community colleges that come up with new ways to make the college experience more responsive to the needs of today's students, according to a statement on the foundation's website.

"Most students today who are pursuing an education beyond high school are also balancing the demands of work and family," Melinda Gates said in the statement. "Yet colleges haven't adapted to this new reality."

Recent figures from the Department of Education show that only about 30 percent of students who begin a two-year associates degree program actually finish up in three years.

Also to be announced at the White House summit is a competition called the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which comes with a $1 million award for community colleges that have outstanding academic and workforce outcomes.

The need for more educated workers was highlighted in a recent study by the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. The study projects that by the year 2018, the United States will need around 22 million workers with new post-secondary degrees, associate's degrees or better. The actual number of such workers is expected to fall short by about 3 million.