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A year after President Barack Obama stood up at Macomb Community College in Michigan to highlight the need for more graduates and to announce the American Graduation Initiative, the nation’s publicly funded two-year colleges are playing a significant role in his administration’s education and economic initiatives – for better or worse.

Community colleges enroll nearly half of the country’s students and have never been in greater demand; Obama recently called them “the unsung heroes” of U.S. education. With the spotlight, though, comes new scrutiny for these mostly open-admissions institutions that operate around the clock in many areas, offering programs that range from basic-skills classes and job training to degrees in nursing. They rely on a range of funding sources and charge tuition that is considerably less than that at other higher-education institutions – averaging just $2,544 for full-time students in 2009-2010.

“For too long, community colleges were underappreciated, underfunded and misunderstood,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said after the first-ever White House summit on the topic in October 2010, attended by business and foundation leaders as well as educators and economists.

Duncan, Obama and Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter have repeatedly articulated an enhanced role for community colleges, one that takes into account their need to move more lower- and moderate-income students through to graduation. “We’ve seen students just fall out of the system, and we can’t allow that to happen,” Kanter said at a conference in September 2010.

Close to 12 million students are enrolled in U.S. community colleges, 40 percent of them as first-time freshmen. Their average age is 28. The vast majority arrive unprepared for college-level work, with 60 percent or more steered into remedial education, according to Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. Some 54 percent work more than 20 hours per week.

Community colleges are under pressure to move students more quickly through remedial or basic-skills courses that can trap them for years and cause so much frustration that they drop out. Schools and researchers are pushing new models, such as integrating basic education into skills-training and grouping students together in “learning communities,” to address some of the more intractable issues.

The new emphasis on completion and degree attainment also comes as the schools are under more pressure to re-educate laid-off workers and train the workforce of the future – from cyber-security technicians to healthcare workers.

“With high visibility come high expectations – something of which community college leaders are keenly aware,” says Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin. “It will be no small task for the colleges to rise to these expectations, given that the challenges are huge and the resources few and declining.”

A harsh economic reality may well hinder the new agenda. Obama’s pledge of $12 billion to help community colleges fulfill their multiple missions, made at Macomb in July 2009, evaporated during debates over healthcare reform, leaving many community-college officials to keep doing what they’ve always done: More with less.

So while Obama and others are pushing for the “work horses” of U.S. higher education to get more attention and resources, tough economic times have meant a decline in state funding just as enrollments have soared to record levels. The trend has been fueled by enrollment caps at four-year state universities, which are steering more students into less expensive two-year schools. Newly unemployed workers are also seeking to enroll for free at community colleges via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Many students are eager to get out quickly and transfer to four-year schools, but community colleges have grappled with the transition to get them there. Too often, it’s difficult for students to move on, which has led some states to craft new legislation and policies in hopes of streamlining the process.

More so than four-year universities – which focus their energies on educating and graduating “traditional” students who typically enroll full-time right after high school – community colleges are asked to do many different things well, and with far fewer resources. The task is enormous and success is far from guaranteed. This reality has left the door open to for-profit (or “career”) colleges that tend to offer more personal attention, greater course availability and attractive financial aid packages.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that community colleges provide a good or excellent education, and the majority say it’s better for some students to attend them instead of four-year schools, according to a September 2010 poll by the Associated Press and Stanford University. Low-income and minority students, in particular, rely on community colleges for higher education in the U.S.

As Obama said at Macomb, “Community colleges are an essential part of our recovery in the present – and our prosperity in the future.”

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Liz Willen, a longtime education journalist, has led the award-winning Hechinger Report staff as editor in chief since 2011. A sought-after moderator of education conferences and events, Willen also writes...

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