President Barack Obama is turning the education spotlight on community colleges, enlisting career teacher and second lady Jill Biden to preside over the first-ever White House summit on the system of schools he's counting on to help produce an additional 8 million graduates by 2020.
While providing millions of students with skills training and a less expensive path to a college degree, these schools are challenged by climbing enrollments, high dropout rates and large numbers of students who come from high school needing significant remedial education before they can tackle college level work, officials say.
What works - and does not work - at community colleges will be topics of discussion at Tuesday's summit.
Obama is scheduled to deliver opening remarks.
The daylong exercise will involve representatives from community colleges, business, philanthropy and government in discussions about how these schools can meet the increased demand for job training and also help fulfill Obama's wish for the U.S. to become the world's top producer of college graduates by 2020.
He is looking to the nation's nearly 1,200 community colleges to turn out 5 million of the 8 million graduates his administration says will be needed to meet Obama's goal.
Falling a month before crucial midterm elections, the summit will give Obama another chance to boost Democrats by arguing that Republicans would reverse his administration's progress on making college more affordable and student loans cheaper should the GOP win full, or even partial, control of Congress.
He signed legislation this year pumping $2 billion into community colleges - $500 million a year for four years. An announcement on the first $500 million installment is expected later in the fall.
Obama used a Monday meeting with his economic advisers to argue that a Republican plan to cut education funding "just doesn't make sense" in a bad economy and at a time other countries are competing harder against the U.S.
He also announced a new public-private partnership linking major corporations like the Gap Inc. and McDonald's with community colleges to improve job training. Obama said the privately funded Skills for America's Future program would make it easier to connect job-seeking students and businesses looking to hire.
White House adviser Melody Barnes said the summit will highlight similar partnerships.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is launching Completion by Design, a $35 million, five-year competitive grant program to boost community college graduation rates, Barnes said.
Martha Kanter, undersecretary of education, said just 25 percent of community college students get a certificate or an associate's degree or transfer to a four-year institution within three years of enrollment. That means three of every four such students leave college without a training certificate or a degree.
Barnes said the Aspen Institute and several charitable foundations will recognize outstanding community colleges with the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a $1 million annual award, beginning next year.
Obama put Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, in charge of the summit. She has taught English at community colleges for 17 of her 30 years as an educator, and she teaches twice a week at a community college not far from the White House. An advocate for community colleges, she often says they are one of America's best-kept secrets.
"Most people were looking for a four-year college and they just sort of bypassed community colleges," Jill Biden told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. "Now that the word is out they're realizing, especially students in the middle class, that this is a way they can afford college."
Community college tuition averages about $2,500 a year.
"What I'm hoping this summit does is create awareness and highlight the value of community colleges," Jill Biden said.
That value, however, is being tested.
Besides the dropout rate, about 60 percent of community college students coming from high school need remedial instruction, said George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges.
The poor economy led to a 17 percent enrollment surge between the 2007 and 2009 academic years, a lot of it from newly unemployed people who went back to school to brush up on their job skills.
Enrollment also got a boost from families who realized they could save on tuition by sending their kids to a community college for two years before having them transfer to a four-year institution.
Community colleges are also making do with leaner state budgets, Boggs said.
This program aired on October 5, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.