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Remarks by the President and Dr. Jill Biden at White House Summit on Community Colleges

Location: Washington, DC

East Room


THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody. Thank you very much. Everybody please have a seat. Thank you so much.

I want to acknowledge some of the folks who are here who are making an incredible contribution to this effort. First of all, our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is here. (Applause.) Our Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, is here. (Applause.) Someone who cares deeply about our veterans and the education that they receive, our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and his wife, Ms. Mullen, are here. (Applause.) Representative Brett Guthrie, Republican of Kentucky, is in the house, and has been doing great work on this. And obviously I am thrilled to not only see Jill Biden here but also Albert Ojeda, who introduced Jill Biden, because I think the story he tells is representative of so many incredible stories all across the country.

I'm so grateful for Jill being willing to lead today's summit, first of all because she has to spend time putting up with Joe. (Laughter.) And that's a big enough task. Then to take this one on, too, on behalf of the administration is extraordinarily significant. I do not think she's doing it for the administration. She's doing it because of the passion she has for community colleges.

Jill has devoted her life to education. As she said, she's been a teacher for nearly three decades, although you can't tell it by looking at her -- (laughter) -- a community college professor for 17 years. I want it on the record Jill is not playing hooky today. The only reason she's here is because her college president gave her permission to miss class. (Laughter.) And this morning, between appearing on the Today Show, receiving briefings from her staff and hosting the summit, she was actually grading papers in her White House office. (Laughter.)

So I think it's clear why I asked Jill to travel the country visiting community colleges -- because, as she knows personally, these colleges are the unsung heroes of America's education system. They may not get the credit they deserve. They may not get the same resources as other schools. But they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.

These are places where young people can continue their education without taking on a lot of debt. These are places where workers can gain new skills to move up in their careers. These are places where anyone with a desire to learn and to grow can take a chance on a brighter future for themselves and their families -- whether that's a single mom, or a returning soldier, or an aspiring entrepreneur.

And community colleges aren't just the key to the future of their students. They're also one of the keys to the future of our country. We are in a global competition to lead in the growth industries of the 21st century. And that leadership depends on a well-educated, highly skilled workforce.

We know, for example, that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate's degree are going to grow twice as fast as jobs that don't require college. We will not fill those jobs -- or keep those jobs on our shores -- without community colleges.

So it was no surprise when one of the main recommendations of my Economic Advisory Board -- who I met with yesterday -- was to expand education and job training. These are executives from some of America's top companies. Their businesses need a steady supply of people who can step into jobs involving a lot of technical knowledge and skill. They understand the importance of making sure we're preparing folks for the jobs of the future.

In fact, throughout our history, whenever we've faced economic challenges, we've responded by seeking new ways to harness the talents of our people. And that's one of the primary reasons that we have prospered. In the 19th century, we built public schools and land grant colleges -- transforming not just education, but our entire economy. In the 20th century, we passed the G.I. Bill and invested in math and science -- helping to unleash a wave of innovation that helped to forge the great American middle class.

But in recent years, we've failed to live up to this legacy, especially in higher education. In just a decade, we've fallen from first to ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees. That not only represents a huge waste of potential; in the global marketplace it represents a threat to our position as the world's leading economy.

As far as I'm concerned, America does not play for second place, and we certainly don't play for ninth. So I've set a goal: By 2020, America will once again lead the world in producing college graduates. And I believe community colleges will play a huge part in meeting this goal, by producing an additional 5 million degrees and certificates in the next 10 years.

That's why last year I launched the American Graduation Initiative. I promised that we would end wasteful subsidies to big banks for student loans, and instead use that money to make college more affordable, and to make a historic investment in community colleges. And after a tough fight, we passed those reforms, and today we're using this money towards the interest of higher education in America.

And this is helping us modernize community colleges at a critical time -- because many of these schools are under pressure to cut costs and to cap enrollments and scrap courses even as demand has soared. It's going to make it possible for colleges to better harness technology in the classroom and beyond. And it's going to promote reform, as colleges compete for funding by improving graduation rates, and matching courses to the needs of local businesses, and making sure that when a graduate is handed a diploma it means that she or he are ready for a career.

We're also helping students succeed by making college more affordable. So we've increased student aid by thousands of dollars. We've simplified the loan application process. And we're making it easier for students to pay back their loans by limiting payments to 10 percent of their income. But reaching the 2020 goal that I've set is not just going to depend on government. It also depends on educators and students doing their part. And it depends on businesses and non-for-profits working with colleges to connect students with jobs.

So that's why we're holding this summit. That's why I'm asking my Economic Advisory Board to reach out to employers across the country and come up with new ways for businesses and community colleges to work together. Based on this call to action, yesterday we announced a new partnership called Skills for America's Future. And the idea is simple: Businesses and community colleges work together to match the work in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom. And already, businesses from PG&E, to UTC, to the Gap have announced their support, as have business leaders like my friend Penny Pritzker, and the Aspen Institute's Walter Isaacson. I hope that the companies, schools and nonprofits that all of you lead will take part.

Today, we can also announce the Gates Foundation is starting a new five-year initiative to raise community college graduation rates. This is critically important because more than half of those who enter community colleges fail to either earn a two-year degree or transfer to a earn a four-year degree. So we want to thank Melinda Gates, who's here, for that terrific contribution. And the Aspen Institute and several leading foundations are launching a competitive prize for community college excellence. It's going to shine a spotlight on community colleges delivering truly exceptional results -- places that often don't get a lot of attention, but make a tremendous difference in their students' lives.

So we're investing in community colleges. We're making college more affordable. And we're bringing together businesses, nonprofits and schools to train folks for the jobs of a new century. Now, all of this will help ensure that we continue to lead the global economy -- but only if we maintain this commitment to education that's always been central to our success.

That's why I so strongly disagree with the economic plan that was released last week by the Republican leaders in Congress, which would actually cut education by 20 percent. It would reduce or eliminate financial aid for 8 million college students. And it would leave community colleges without the resources they need to meet the goals we've talked about today.

Instead, this money would help pay for a $700 billion tax cut that only 2 percent of the wealthiest Americans would ever see -- an average of $100,000 for every millionaire and billionaire in the country. And that just doesn't make sense -- not for students, not for our economy.

Think about it. China isn't slashing education by 20 percent right now. India is not slashing education by 20 percent. We are in a fight for the future -- a fight that depends on education. And cutting aid for 8 million students, or scaling back our community -- our commitment to community colleges, that's like unilaterally disarming our troops right as they head to the frontlines.

So we obviously have to get serious about our deficit. That's why, after decades of profligacy, my administration report pay-as-you-go rules, proposed a three-year freeze on non-security spending. That's why we've formed a bipartisan deficit reduction commission.

But what we can't do is fund tax cuts for those who don't need it by slashing education for those who do. There's a better way for us to do this. And I want to work together with everybody concerned -- Republican and Democrat -- to figure that out.

To use an expression familiar to those of you who are from the Midwest: You don't eat your seed corn. (Laughter.) We can't accept less investment in our young people if our country is going to move forward. It would mean giving up on the promise of so many people who might not be able to pursue an education, like the millions of students at community colleges across this country.

So I just want to use as an example Derek Blumke, who's here today. Where's Derek? Right here. Derek spent six years in the Air Force, three deployments in the Afghan theater, putting his life at risk to keep this country safe. And when he returned, he started classes at his local community college in northern Michigan. Now, apparently, what I'm told is, he wasn't sure whether he was smart enough to do the work, and he also was concerned that he wouldn't get the support that he needed.

And he was wrong on both fronts. His professors not only helped him transition from the military -- even as he continued to serve in the Michigan Air National Guard -- but also helped him to earn his associate's degree with honors. Then he transferred to the University of Michigan -- Go Blue -- (laughter) -- where he graduated just a few weeks ago. And while he was there, he co-founded Student Veterans of America to help returning veterans like himself. So congratulations, Derek. (Applause.)

Or we can look to the example set by Albert Ojeda, who just spoke to you. He didn't have any advantages in life -- grew up in a tough neighborhood in Phoenix, lost his father to violence, lost his mother to prison. But that didn't stop him from pursuing an education. It didn't stop him from attending community college, become an honor student, become the first member of his family to graduate from college.

There are so many folks out there like Derek and Albert. And I think about the many community college students who've written letters to me or emails through about how important community college has been to them. One person said he had been laid off and decided to return to school after 17 years. And attending community college "literally helped save my life" -- that's what he said. "I can not only see an associate's degree next year, but a new future filled with possibilities for the first time."

A new future filled with possibilities. That's why we're here today. That's the promise of an education not just for any one student, but for our entire country. And that's why it's so important that we work together on behalf of community colleges -- and an education system that harnesses the talents and hard work of every single American.

So thank you for the incredible work that each and every one of you do out there in schools, business folks who are supporting these community colleges, the students who are doing so much to contribute to our country. Let's get busy. Thank you very much.

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