PRESIDENT Obama launched an important initiative in Michigan last week, designed to tailor education to the needs of 21st century employers and workers. He's calling it the American Graduation Initiative and has pledged $12 billion to strengthening the nation's network of two-year colleges, like Owens Community College or Monroe County Community College.
His announcement, which was too-little noticed by the national media, is long overdue. For too long, the nation's policy experts have acted as if the only education options were stopping after high school or going on to get at least a four-year degree. The fact is that not everybody needs a bachelor's degree - but everybody does need training beyond high school.
For years, community colleges have played an important dual role in this country. They help get some students ready for more advanced academic institutions, and they have provided needed vocational training and retraining for others. Now, with the collapse of some parts of America's manufacturing economy, community colleges are needed more than ever, and it is more important that what they do be properly targeted.
The President was refreshingly blunt at times, telling a crowd at Macomb Community College in Warren, "The hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won't be coming back." He correctly noted that what jobs do exist in the future are likely to require at least an associate's degree, or higher and higher levels of training. "We will not fill those jobs - or even keep those jobs here in America - without the training offered by community colleges."
What Mr. Obama wants to do is to position community colleges to offer training that's relevant and worthwhile. Part of the money is designed to enable community colleges to push forward cautiously with more online course offerings so that they "can offer more classes without building more classrooms."
Most of all, he wants to give these schools the ability to "create programs that match curricula in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom." To do that, he intends to create a new research center "with a simple mission: to measure what works and what doesn't."
This bold new effort may need some safeguards, but deserves strong bipartisan support. If all this is done well, it could be exactly what is needed by a generation of displaced workers, the nation, and the economy.
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