AFT Members Participate in Community College Summit

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President Obama continues to deliver on a promise to make higher education—community colleges in particular—a priority in his administration. At the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges on Oct. 5, the president placed them in the context of the current economy.

"For more and more people, community colleges are the way to the future," he said. "They're giving real opportunity to students who otherwise wouldn't have it. They're giving hope to families who thought the American Dream was slipping away. They are equipping Americans with the skills and expertise that are relevant to the emerging jobs of the future. They're opening doors for the middle class at a time when the middle class has seen so many doors close to them."

Second lady Jill Biden presided over the summit. An English professor who teaches a few days a week at Northern Virginia Community College, she said teaching is her life's work. Her views come from the trenches, where community college workers see students and families up against it, fighting to make better lives for themselves. "We see that struggle firsthand in community colleges. We see people who are determined to build a better life for themselves and their families, no matter how hard it is."

The summit welcomed representatives from colleges, business and philanthropy; federal and state policymakers; and faculty and students. They heard brief remarks from Obama and Biden, and then broke into groups to exchange ideas on building partnerships with industry, boosting degree completion, expanding financial aid, reaching out to the military, enhancing community colleges' role in job training, and strengthening remedial education.

One of the more promising aspects of the meeting was the high participation of faculty—who reportedly numbered around 40. Before the summit began, the White House set up a website and solicited comments. Many of those comments were posted by part-time/adjunct faculty who asked policymakers to consider the fact that 70 percent of community college courses are taught by contingent faculty.

AFT vice president Sandra Schroeder, who is president of AFT Washington and co-chair of the AFT Higher Education program and policy council, was one of the invitees. Before the event, she shared her thoughts on the summit in a post titled "What We Must Discuss at the Community College Summit." Her discussion group focused on challenges and solutions around the issue of college completion.

The group discussed remedial education, nontraditional students and how to gauge success, among other things. Schroeder noted that whether talking about providing remedial or other education services to students, faculty would benefit from more professional development. "New ideas are coming forth about how you reach these students, and sometimes faculty aren't aware of them."

For Suzanne Gorman Sublette, a sociology instructor at Madison College (formerly known as Madison Area Technical College) and a member of the MATC Full-Time Teachers Union/AFT, going to the White House presented an opportunity to make crucial points about serving students, especially disadvantaged students. She was assigned to a discussion group exploring the topic, "Pathways to the Baccalaureate," and Sublette made the point that the pathway begins long before college, or even high school. For students to find their way, they need information. "The students, the thousands I have taught, both transfer-bound and non-transfer-bound, don't ever realize easy access to information," she said. "Without that, they can't make adequate decisions about their future."

While the White House did not announce any new money or initiatives for community colleges, the AFT participants said the meeting showed that policymakers at the highest levels are focused on the sector. Sublette noted that she was expecting to see aides running the discussions. Instead, she met Cabinet members: education secretary Arne Duncan, labor secretary Hilda Solis, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Michael Mullen, and undersecretaries of education Martha Kanter and James Kvaal. "These people listened and are genuinely concerned," she said, adding, "We [community colleges] never went to the White House before. This is really big, even symbolically. It says, 'you guys really are important.' "[Barbara McKenna, Sandra Schroeder, White House press release]

October 8, 2010