Brian Snyder/Reuters

They play an underrated but important role in getting our high-skill jobs filled.

In a recent meeting of the National Governors Association, Education Secretary Arne Duncan proclaimed that “with over two million high-skilled jobs currently unfilled, [America] doesn’t have a job crisis, we have a skills crisis.” Duncan’s remarks are important in view of a recent Education Department report that only 39.3 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 held an associate, bachelors, or graduate degree in 2010. At this pace, America will never meet the goal set by President Obama for the United States to have the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020.

While the four-year degree has traditionally been seen as the standard, a growing number of Americans are relying on community colleges for post-secondary education. The number of Americans attending a two-year college rose from 5.5 million in 2000 to 8 million in 2010. Can the growth in community college students be the key to America closing its skills gap and again truly leading the world in college graduates?

To do so will take sustained leadership by those at the top, but more importantly by those closest to the issue. Though President Obama has been supportive of community colleges, he could build greater support by framing college education not only as an economics issue but as a national security issue as well. According to a 2011 Report by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, by 2018 some 92 percent of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers will need post-secondary education. The unique ability of community colleges to respond to America’s ever-changing workforce needs reinforces the importance of investing in STEM education partnerships. For example, public-private partnerships with the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have resulted in 36 percent of community colleges creating programs focusing on cyber-security.

For those already working full time, community colleges are a way to move from underemployment to full employment. While the U.S. unemployment rate has remained steady in recent months, the number of America’s underemployed grew from 8 million to 9.3 million in the final six months of 2011. Community colleges have long been a haven not only for those seeking career readiness but also those seeking continuing education programs.

The relationship between cost and college completion demands that we keep tuition costs down and financial aid up for all Americans, especially for the underemployed looking to return to college. While tuition at community colleges averages 64 percent less than at four-year institutions, these students still struggle with financing their education. The Obama administration and Congress coming together on a temporary measure to keep federal student loans low was good step in the right direction because it gave millions of college students the certainty they need to continue. The administration’s idea of investing $1 billion into a Race to the Top for Higher Education could help create the innovation we need to control costs. Using grant funding, this would give incentives to colleges to find innovative ways to lower costs while also aligning entrance and exit standards with the K-12 education system. The Obama administration should make the proposed Race to the Top for Higher Education a priority while highlighting the strong relationship between the cost of college and graduation rates.

Community colleges can also be an incubator for how we address the shortfall created by our K-12 system. Currently, 34 percent of all new entering college students require at least one remedial class. The relationship between a student needing remediation and their graduating is startling. According to Complete College America, only one quarter of community college students who take at least one remedial course earn a certificate or degree. Colleges are already filling voids left by our current school system’s inability to respond to the needs of a global society. They are not only partnering with established institutions like the Gates Foundation, but are also looking for locally-based solutions to increase the number of America’s college and career-ready graduates. Prince George’s Community College in suburban Maryland, for example, has partnered with the local school system to implement the “Middle College” model. While in high school, students earn up to two years of college credit towards an associates degree. Federal grants to support innovative solutions like the Middle College concept can make all the difference in the race to out-educate the world and close America’s skills gap.

Closing America’s skills gap can be just what the country needs to regain its position as the world’s leader in higher education. The ability of community colleges to meet their student population where they are socially, academically, geographically, and financially make them an invaluable leader in America’s plan to take back our position as the world’s largest producer of high skilled workers.

Top image: Bryan Snyder/Reuters.

This post originally appeared on the CFR blog.

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