If you've been thinking of brushing up your professional skills, or making yourself more competitive in the job market with a credential or second degree, now's the time to do it.
Today, Dr. Jill Biden, Vice Presidential First Lady, and President Obama hosted the White House Summit on Community College. The day-long event, accessible online as well as consisting of 150 or so in-person community college students, administrators, faculty, and philanthropic, labor, and business partners, highlights the importance of two-year colleges as a stepping stone to a college degree and a way for mid-career adults to retool or retrain.
Dr. Biden is well suited to lead discussion, as she has taught at the community college level for the past seventeen years. Time and again, she's seen education open doors to a middle class life, and an affordable education is even more important in a period of economic uncertainty when college costs might be out of reach for many. Citing President Obama, she sounded a note of warning: "The nations that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow."
Dr. Biden said community colleges were a hidden, often overlooked gem in education, and a key means to achieve President Obama's goal to enable 8 million more students to graduate from college by 2020 -- 5 million of whom will be community college graduates. In the president's remarks, he said he urged Americans to recapture our distinction as the nation with the highest college graduation rate, instead of our current ranking of ninth globally. He pointed out that China and India are hardly cutting back funding for education.
In a pre-event blogger call, Dr. Biden, Director of the President's Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes, Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, and Assistant Secretary of Labor Jane Oates described the fourfold goals of the summit, which is part of the implementation phase of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.
1) to announce and build upon partnerships between community colleges and the business community. These private-public partnerships will foster job retraining and placement through worksite education programs; community colleges can implement spot retraining courses in a nimble response to the needs of local businesses and employers.
2) expand and refine course offerings and ensure easy transfer of credits to 4 year colleges.
3) expand and boost remedial and other programs that prepare degree-seekers for specialized employment in emerging fields.
4) expand comprehensive personalized services to help community college students stay in school, lowering the hurdles to meet educational goals. When community college students are balancing work and family life with school commitments, flexible online learning and adequately-staffed child care centers are a crucial part of the support system.
As a highlight of the event, two major private/public partnerships will be announced:
The Gates Foundation has created the Completion By Design grant, which makes available $35 million over five years to support the practices that increase community college graduation rates. Schools that show a track record of graduating students with a degree, certificate, or credential that prepare students for highly-skilled jobs will receive grants to scale their programs to reach more people.
The Aspen Foundation, together with Bank of America, J.P. Morgan, the Lumina Foundation, and the Joyce Fund, has created the Aspen Prize for Community College Achievements. This $1 million fund rewards and disseminates best practices by successful community colleges and focuses on outcomes that help graduates use their degrees in the workplace.
In answer to a question that pointed out the frustration of long-term unemployed folks who say "the jobs just aren't there," Director of Domestic Policy Melody Barnes responded, "The President's focus has been jobs creation since entering office. Stabilization was step one, the recently passed Small Business Jobs Act was step two. Also know there are a couple million jobs in certain specialized fields that don't have enough applicants. Workers who have skills need retraining. This is why [the White House thought it] important to ally with the private sector to get skills and needs matched up. The curriculum being offered at community colleges includes on-the-job training, and this will be for jobs that'll be available in years to come."
Martha Kanter added, "People who right now aren't prepared for jobs that will come online in 6-8 months can get that retraining at community colleges. It's critically important that they research labor info now and get skilled-up so they can be well-placed when the economy turns around."
Barnes, Kanter and Oates also highlighted recent increases in Pell Grants and other educational loans that will help people retrain. Pell Grants, which need not be repaid if you complete your program, will see a rise to $5,975 from a previous ceiling of $5,550 in 2013.
As a direct result of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, student loan repayment rates are capped at 10% of discretionary income for new borrowers after July 2014, and in some cases, depending on a high-demand public service field such as nursing or teaching, loan balances may be forgiven altogether after ten years of payment.
Also as a direct result of the newly passed law, $2 billion in taxpayer money has been committed to investment in community colleges in order to accommodate larger enrollment and wider course offerings.
In short, yes, times are hard. Some jobs will never return. But this administration has outlined and funded several ways for Americans to seize new opportunities with the right preparation and timing in fields that are only just emerging. Our economy will turn around. It's just a question of when. And now you have resources that'll help you be ready.
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