Critics Say White House Summit Sidelined Community Colleges

January 17, 2014

As guests of the White House on Thursday basked in the good will of promises to open doors and guide students to graduation, many educators who have dedicated their careers to helping low-income students succeed in college watched from the sidelines.

Most were excited that the issues they'd long grappled with were taking center stage. But some couldn't help pointing out that many ideas emerging from the White House summit—targeted scholarships, better test preparation, summer enrichment programs, fast-tracked remedial education—were old news on their campuses, which nonetheless continue to see low completion rates.

Critics contended that the meeting's guest list, which included more than 100 colleges as well as 40 nonprofit organizations, foundations, and other groups, was dominated by elite institutions. That gave short shrift, some observers said, to the contributions that community colleges and many small, lesser-known private institutions are already making. The community-college sector serves nearly half of the nation's students and the overwhelming majority of those from low-income backgrounds.

Patricia A. McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University, a Roman Catholic institution of 2,500 students less than four miles from the White House. When she learned about the summit, she called the organizers to request an invitation. But those were only for colleges willing to commit to new, concrete efforts to serve needy students, she said she heard in response.

"If you're an institution like us, where 80 percent of the students are eligible for Pell Grants and the median family income is $25,000, there's hardly any room to do anything new or more than we're already doing," said Ms. McGuire.

"The Obama administration is acting like they just made this up," she said. If colleges that don't serve many low-income students are going to pay more attention to that population, that's great, she said. "But there are hundreds of small private colleges that already do this work that have been completely shut out of this summit."

Focus on Elites

Much of the discussion at the White House meeting was about the phenomenon of "undermatching," in which many high-achieving, low-income students who would qualify for admission to selective colleges instead end up at institutions that are beneath them academically, and typically have lower graduation rates. More-selective colleges, the thinking goes, tend to offer better support—small classes, tutoring—to students unfamiliar with the demands of college.

Not surprisingly, many educators bristle at the suggestion that the colleges that enroll most of the nation's low-income and underrepresented students aren't up to the task.

That idea, Ms. McGuire said, sends a "pernicious message: If you don't go to an elite institution, you might as well forget about it."

Gene B. Sperling, director of the White House's National Economic Council, acknowledged that sensitivity in his remarks on Thursday. Helping students get into the colleges where they'll be most successful is important, he said—and so is fit.

"For a lot of people, that best match might be to start in a community college," which may then serve as a bridge to a four-year institution, he said.

Gloria Nemerowicz is founder and president of the Yes We Must Coalition: College Success for All, a nonprofit organization of 33 small, private nonprofit colleges and universities that enroll students who are primarily from low-income families.

She also welcomed the national attention to problems with college access and completion, and agreed that much of what she was hearing wasn't new, and that it overlooked the contributions of many less-prestigious institutions.

"The focus of the summit seems to be on how to get more low-income people into what are defined as elite institutions," she said. "Our folks have been doing this work in our own backyards for a long time, whether it's in Appalachia or in the middle of Detroit or New York City."

As the summit was in the planning stages, members of her coalition assumed that she would be invited. "I said, 'No, this is one party I can't crash,'" she recalled with a laugh.

Deepened Commitments

Among the guests were some representatives of community colleges, mainly those that are part of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping more community-college students succeed. About a quarter of its budget comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose college-completion goals are closely aligned with those of the Obama administration.

About two-thirds of students at colleges in Achieving the Dream start out needing at least one remedial course, and one-third show up with preparation well below college level. Among the commitments the group made on Thursday was to dedicate one day of its annual institute, which attracts 1,600 participants, to workshops on helping the least-prepared students, who might struggle even in remedial courses.

"While our colleges have been working for a long time to try to improve outcomes, they've deepened their commitment in light of the call from the White House," said Carol A. Lincoln, senior vice president at Achieving the Dream.

Suggestions like accelerated remedial courses and programs that relate content to students' career goals have already proved effective on some campuses, said Patti Levine-Brown, a professor of communications at Florida State College at Jacksonville, who serves as president of the National Association for Developmental Education.

David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said the meeting's organizers had asked him for recommendations of colleges or groups willing to make new commitments on remedial education in particular.

He would have liked to see his sector better represented at the summit, he said, but he hoped that participants had walked away understanding "the essential role our institutions play in moving large numbers of low-income students into the middle class."