Obama Says Community Colleges Are `Unsung Heroes' of U.S. Education System

President Barack Obama said community colleges are the “unsung heroes” of the U.S. education system and play a crucial role in training American workers to compete in the global economy.

The U.S. is falling behind other nations in the number of college graduates, and bolstering education is key to assuring future prosperity, Obama said today at the first White House summit on community colleges.

“We are in a global competition to lead in the growth industries of the 21st century,” he said. “And that leadership depends on a well-educated, highly skilled workforce.”

The summit was the second event in two days at which the administration is focusing on community colleges a source for training the U.S. workforce and increasing the nation’s education levels. Yesterday Obama announced an initiative that links companies including McDonald’s Corp., Gap Inc., Pacific Gas & Electric, Accenture Plc and United Technologies Corp. with community colleges to develop programs.

The effort is getting a boost with a $35 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which will fund grants to groups of the colleges in nine states that develop plans to address the needs of low-income students.

The states, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Washington, serve the biggest populations of low-income students, according to a White House fact sheet.

‘Hidden Gems’

Melinda Gates, who spoke at the White House meeting, said community colleges are “hidden gems” and are key to create opportunities for low-income and non-traditional students.

Obama has set a goal of increasing the number of community college degrees and certificates by 5 million in the next decade.

As part of legislation Obama signed in March, the U.S. set aside $2 billion for competitive grants to community colleges over the next four years to augment skills-training focused on the needs of industry. The Labor and Education departments will award the first $500 million of the money over the course of the next year.

In addition, the $814 billion economic stimulus legislation signed by Obama last year included more than $3.5 billion in community college financial aid and $1 billion for community college worker training programs.

Partisan Differences

With elections to decide control of Congress a month away, Obama also used the summit to criticize Republicans, who he said have sharp policy differences with Democrats on education.

As he has at several recent events, the president again accused Republicans of planning to cut education funding in their election-year pledge to trim $100 billion from the $477 billion that lawmakers set for discretionary spending next year while supporting extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

He said the Republican plan would result in reducing the education budget by 20 percent and trim or eliminate financial aid for 8 million students.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called Obama’s figure “a made-up number.”

No Specific Cuts

Michael Steel, a spokesman for the House Republican leader, Representative John Boehner of Ohio, said the Republican plan, named the Pledge to America, doesn’t include “any of the specific cuts” cited by Obama.

“The president’s untrue talking points don’t change the fact that the American people are asking, ‘where are the jobs’ and he has no new answers,” Steel said in an e-mailed response.

In opening the summit, Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, called community colleges “uniquely American” institutions that open the doors to the middle class for students that have few other opportunities.

“Today’s summit is an important next step in our efforts to meet the president’s goal of having the best educated most competitive workforce in the world by the end of this decade,” Biden said. “Community colleges are at the center of America’s effort to educate our way to a better economy.”

The White House session included includes representatives of businesses, philanthropic groups and community colleges.

Community colleges get broad support from Americans, according to a recent survey.

In the poll, by The Associated Press and Stanford University and partially funded by the Gates Foundation, 71 percent of Americans said it’s sometimes better for students to attend community colleges instead of four-year universities.

Community colleges were also rated almost as highly as four- year universities in their ability to prepare students for the workforce, according to the poll.

The survey interviewed 1,001 American adults Sept. 23-30 and has a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.

To contact the reporters on this story: Roger Runningen in Washington at =624=1884 or rrunningen@blooomberg.net; Nicholas Johnston in Washington at njohnston3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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