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New group trying to raise profile of community colleges

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Community college leaders in Virginia, Indiana and other states say their schools' roles in giving students an affordable education and job training are undervalued, so they're banding together to fight for federal policy changes.

Virginia Community College System Chancellor Glenn DuBois and his counterparts in Indiana, Louisiana and North Carolina have formed Rebuilding the Middle Class. The coalition, which held its first meeting last week in the group's home base of Indianapolis, is raising money in hopes of building its profile among the public and with lawmakers.

"We were seen as high schools with ashtrays — we weren't real," DuBois said. "The perception was that this was the place to go if you couldn't get into college."

That has changed as more employers now require a post-secondary education while the costs for attending four-year schools have skyrocketed. The two-year schools are typically far less-expensive to attend and serve as an interim step for many students between high school and four-year colleges and universities.

Community colleges in particular have seen a growing number of low-income and minority students attain credentials, associate's degrees and workforce certificates over the past two decades.

Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, heads the new group. He said that although community colleges have become more important in recent decades, federal policies and programs created to aid students — including grant and loan funding — haven't grown accordingly.

"Since the Pell Grant was created in the 1970s, they haven't fundamentally changed, but students really have changed," May said. "In the 1970s, the majority attending college were young and lived on campus. Students today are much older, a majority are working while going to school and half of undergraduate enrollment is at community colleges."

Also, the required education level for workers has increased, heightening the need for post-secondary education. In the 1970s, 75 percent of middle-class jobs required only a high school diploma. By 2007, that figure had dropped to 40 percent, May said, citing a Georgetown University workforce study.

Federal grant programs such as Pell grants and Perkins loans for low-income students need to better accommodate part-time students and students with families to help them meet employers' expectations, he said.

Since he took office, President Barack Obama has touted the role community colleges play in training workers for jobs in high-demand fields. So has Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill Biden, an English teacher at Northern Virginia Community College.

A $10 billion initiative proposed in 2009 was aimed at growing the U.S. work force by increasing the number of community-college graduates. "But his proposal fizzled," DuBois noted, and Congress decided to make it a competitive grant program worth $2 billion over four years.

"We just need more help in getting that conversation going so that important policymakers will see the value of this tool when they're making important decisions about the economy and the workforce," he said.

In Virginia, for example, two-thirds of undergraduates at public colleges and universities are enrolled in community colleges, and 40 percent of next year's graduates will have had taken coursework at community colleges, DuBois said. There are about 400,000 Virginians enrolled in either credit-granting courses or workforce-training programs in the state's community college system. In comparison, there were about 164,000 undergraduates at Virginia's public four-year schools and about 81,000 at the four-year private colleges last fall.

Besides DuBois and May, the founders of Rebuilding America's Middle Class include R. Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, and Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College System in Indiana.

The fledgling group has partnered with not-for-profits such as the Lumina Foundation, a group that aims to increase the number of Americans attaining college degrees. It also is coordinating with the American Association of Community Colleges, the main national advocacy group representing more than 1,100 two-year institutions.

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