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Saturday December 4th

Obama shifts focus to higher education with increased funding to community colleges

Community colleges to take more in

The Obama administration is looking to boost community college enrollment in order to increase the number of graduates nationwide.

President Barack Obama has set a goal for the U.S. to reach by 2020: to lead the world in producing college graduates, and to do so in part by generating five million more degrees and certificates at community colleges.

But administrators at community colleges in North Carolina say they are already struggling with limited resources; enrolling a significant number of new students might not be a possibility.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, hosted the first White House Summit on Community Colleges earlier this month to encourage community college enrollment.

The President also launched the American Graduation Initiative, a new program that would increase financial aid to students and invest money in community colleges.

Scott Ralls, president of the N.C. Community College System, attended the summit to represent the state.

“We know that our community colleges are where North Carolinians turn for hope, opportunity and jobs,” Ralls said.

“This summit is further acknowledgement by President Obama’s administration that community colleges are key to economic recovery,” he said.

Community colleges across the state are having trouble adjusting to large enrollments, but some administrators said they were supportive of Obama’s initiative.

“I applaud him for bringing the attention of community colleges to America,” said Eric McKeithan, president of Cape Fear Community College.

“We need to move America back to a prominent position in education,” he said.

McKeithan said the college saw a growth of 16 percent in class size last year alone.

Many people had to be turned away from the college because of a lack of space, he said.

To accommodate the large number of enrollments, the college extended operational hours to weekends and Friday nights, McKeithan said.

The college also rented extra rooms in Wilmington, he said.

Uncertain economic conditions might be one reason community college enrollment is increasing.

“Our enrollment for the last two years has been up — community colleges are very tied to the economy,” said Megan Hoenk, director of marketing and external affairs of N.C. Community Colleges System.

“What we saw in 2008 was that we saw a lot of displaced workers who decided to go to school to gain additional skills or go into another career.”

Contact the State & National Editor at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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