Community Colleges: Helping the U.S. Become “First in the World”

About three-quarters of college students in this country attend a community college or public university. President Obama understands the crucial role that community colleges play in helping students and our nation skill up for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. That’s why, in a recent speech on the economy, he called them “gateways to the middle class” – and it’s also why they’re a key part of his ambitious plan to improve higher education in America.

I recently had an opportunity to visit LaGuardia Community College in Long Island, New York where I was able to deliver some exciting news. During my visit, I announced that LaGuardia is among the 24 winners of our new $75 million First in the World (FITW) grant program, designed to fund innovation in higher education in ways that help keep the quality of a college education up, and the costs of a college education within reach, so more students of every background can fulfill their dreams of getting a degree.

As this award made clear, community colleges are often at the forefront of innovation. They also promote the dual goals of academics and career readiness. To learn more about how LaGuardia and countless other community colleges across the country support students, I sat down with a group of them to hear their stories.

Hassan Hasibul, a former cab driver and alumnus of LaGuardia’s Tech Internship Placement Program, explained how he learned to thrive in the workplace and gained new skills – skills that got him noticed. “My internship site hired me, and even gave me a portion of their stock,” he said.

One of the most exciting innovations at LaGuardia, which the FITW grant will support, is the development of an integrated set of tools to increase and enhance student success, including the use of ePortfolios, learning analytics, and outcome assessments. With the extra funding, LaGuardia will help students navigate their educational and career goals as they transfer to other institutions or join the workforce.

Faculty and staff aren’t the only ones helping students make academic and career decisions. Students are also helping other students plot out their courses and career trajectories. Jenny Perez shared her experience in helping her peers. “Even if they aren’t planning on transferring, I help them open their mind about the possibilities in their future,” she said.

For Enes “Malik” Akdemir, who came to the U.S. at age 18, without money or relatives, the LaGuardia faculty and students have become a huge, supportive family. After a year and a half in intense English immersion classes, he discovered his passion for aeronautics.

During a school tour, he stopped to admire a vintage picture of a plane flying over Manhattan. Pointing to the flight deck, I said, “Someday, you’ll be right there.”

“Someday,” he agreed.

Stories like those of Hassan, Jenny and Malik offer a glimpse of the great work happening every day in these incubators of innovation. They also serve as reminders of the clear role that community colleges play in ensuring that. America’s more than 1,100 community colleges are playing a major role in helping to ensure that our higher education system is once again, first in the world. And, every step of progress brings us closer to reaching our North Star Goal – to reclaim our place as the nation with the world’s highest proportion of college graduates.

Ted Mitchell is Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.