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President Obama and community colleges

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Since he took office, President Obama has consistently emphasized the importance of community colleges to the nation’s prosperity.

In his first State of the Union (SOTU) on Jan 27, 2010, the President said: “When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all 50 states. Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. That's why I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families.”

In the second SOTU on Jan 25, 2011, he declared: “Because people need to be able to train for new jobs and careers in today's fast-changing economy, we are also revitalizing America's community colleges.”

A year later, on Jan 24, 2012, we heard this from the President during his third SOTU: “Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses and community colleges … are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers – places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.”

During the fourth SOTU, on Feb 12, 2013, President Obama said: “Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job.”

In the latest (and fifth) SOTU delivered on Jan 28, 2014, the President said: “I’ve asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs to make sure they have one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now. That means more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life. It means connecting companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs.”

Two things stand out from the President’s speeches.

First, he wants community college students to get the sort of training that will help them get jobs right away, instead of waiting for fickle luck to strike one day, if at all. How can that be done? By making sure that local high-tech or manufacturing or other types of industries offer community college students training that exactly matches the positions they are trying to fill.

To his credit, the President followed up his fifth SOTU by ordering a “soup to nuts” review of the federal workforce training programs and promising that only the most successful ones will continue. He decried the futility of a “train and pray” approach where “you train workers first, and then you hope they get a job.” He pledged $500 million in existing funds to design programs that pair community colleges with industry.

As has been noted here, allowing community colleges the right to grant bachelor’s degrees in selected vocational fields, such as nursing, automotive and biotechnology, will help meet workforce demand and boost employment.

Second, and this is somewhat puzzling, is the President’s use of the word “revitalize” when referring to community colleges in both his first and the second SOTUs. A critic could charge that using the word in the second SOTU implied that “revitalization” failed in the preceding year.

So here’s a request, Mr. President. You have been the most passionate champion of community colleges among U.S. Presidents by far, but please don’t use “revitalize” any more when you talk about community colleges. Your speechwriters may have run out of imagination, but surely not you. “Reenergize,” “reimagine,” “rethink” or any similar word will do, just not “revitalize.” Please!

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