President Obama's new community college initiative brought to mind an old Chris Rock monologue that went something like this: "You know why they call it 'community college'? Because that's who you see when you go there: The 'community'!"
I think he was referring to the black "community," judging by the amused howls of laughter he received from his mostly black audience. It was a funny line drawn from the tradition of African American sarcasm, based on impressions that actually were not true.
In fact, the 900,000 African Americans enrolled in two-year schools make up only 14 percent of total enrollments at two-year community colleges, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. That's compared to 11 percent of the total enrollments at four-year colleges and universities. Overall the nation's two-year colleges look like a mulligan stew of diverse races, goals, interests, ethnicities and abilities.
You can find diversity at community colleges like the one in my neighborhood that makes the United Nations look like a stodgy old downtown men's club. Their numbers include ambitious youngsters who often are the first in their family to go to college, immigrants seeking a leg up to the American dream, ambivalent youths looking for a second chance after less-than-stellar high school years, and working folks of all ages looking for new skills in an ill job market.
Changing times and new economic hardships give all of us new reasons to look more seriously at community colleges: The United States has slipped to tenth place among industrial nations in our percentage of 25-to-34 year olds who have earned a post-high-school degree, according to a report released in February by the Lumina Foundation. Since adults aged 55 to 64 still lead the world in the percentage of college grads, the study found, younger Americans appear to have slipped not only behind their peers overseas but behind their elders, too.
"It's not so much that we've dropped behind other countries," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me in an interview in his office. "Actually we have flatlined ... stagnated. The rest of the world has passed us by. So we have to educate ourselves to a better economy."
The former CEO of Chicago's public schools agreed to an interview a few days after President Obama announced one of the biggest federal college spending initiatives since the GI Bill.
Among other goals, Obama's proposed American Graduation Initiative would pump $12 billion into community colleges and add 5 million new graduates by 2020.
Why community colleges? Because that's where the growth is. While four-year college enrollment has flattened since the mid-1970s, community college enrollment has been growing at three times the rate of four-year schools, according to the Education Department. Increased demand during the recession has only boosted demand for community colleges as youngsters seek affordable education and older workers seek new skills.
"We used to lead the world," Duncan said. "This is where Barack has challenged us. He says by 2020 we have to lead the world again."
Community colleges may well be the key to our recovery, if we can find a way to keep more students enrolled all the way to graduation. At present, about half drop out before they receive a degree.
Duncan's prescription: Comb the nation's colleges for "best practices" those that are getting results through innovative curricula and teaching methods and then replicate their lessons elsewhere.
Students don't drop out only because of a lack of money. Self-discipline, academic preparation and home life often play bigger roles. But financial help can do a lot to ease tensions at home and provide incentives that produce better work ethics.
As a Chicago schools chief, Duncan engaged launched campaigns that used enticements such as sports tickets and even a car lottery to improve first-day school attendance. In his new national role, Duncan is promoting Obama's plan to provide incentives for effective local innovations that can be replicated across the country to improve school attendance and performance.
"We used to lead the world," Duncan said. "We know what the right thing is to do. The question is, do we have the political courage to do it."