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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Remarks to the Association of Community College Trustees Leadership Congress

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Toronto, Canada
October 20, 2010


Good evening and thank you for that warm welcome and introduction. I am honored to be here in Toronto to participate in the 41st Annual Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) Leadership Congress.

I want to thank the leadership of ACCT, including the Chairman of the Executive Committee, Thomas Bennett, and the Chair-Elect, Peter Sercer, for inviting to me to take part in this event.

I also want to recognize J. Noah Brown, the President and CEO of the ACCT, and Dr. Narcisa Polonio, ACCT’s Vice President for Research, Education, and Board Leadership Services. Their leadership at ACCT on issues affecting community colleges in the United States, Canada, and internationally has been critical to the success and well-being of millions across the globe. I also want to thank Noah for his leadership on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.

Finally, I want to acknowledge all of the participants at this conference, including community college trustees and presidents from across the country. The Obama Administration greatly respects and commends your longstanding commitment to excellence in education, and we stand with you as you seek new ways to strengthen the impact of community colleges in the United States and internationally, and to prepare millions of students for the challenges of the 21st century.

Across North America, leaders are focused on the roles community colleges play. You have convened your Leadership Congress here in Toronto. President Obama convened a historic Summit on Community Colleges. The first summit of its kind at the White House, it demonstrated this Administration’s strong commitment to community colleges and higher education in America, and President Obama’s interest in promoting the role of community colleges.

But it is not just in the United States that leaders are focusing on community colleges. Around the world, leaders are focused on education. Last month, the United Nations recommitted itself to the Millennium Development Goals, two of which are directly focused on spreading universal education and improving educational opportunity for women and girls.

Last July, Dr. Jill Biden spoke about U.S. community colleges to an eager crowd at UNESCO’s World Conference on Higher Education, emphasized how community colleges have helped the United States address the challenge of making higher education more accessible to all, a message that resonated with the audience. She also affirmed the importance of community colleges in the United States and spoke about the flexibility, responsiveness, and affordability of the community college model.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ lead agency on education, continues to push for affordable, universal education through its Education for All Goals, which set out a concrete framework for spreading the benefits of access to education globally. Since rejoining in 2003, the United States has been a strong voice in support of education at UNESCO, especially the role of community colleges.

The world does this for good reason: there is a greater demand for education than ever before. Already we see increased urbanization and an emerging middle class in many developing countries. These forces, combined with new technologies, are creating a demand for more skills from the workforce than any period in human history. Countries are turning to community colleges because, to paraphrase Dr. Biden, they see community colleges as institutions that can serve their local communities.

I am also personally focused on education, because supporting quality education advances both our own National Security and our foreign policy goals. Education also helps to address the global problems we face every day across the United Nations system, by strengthening human rights and democracy, creating economic opportunity, and combating the violent extremism of organizations like Al-Qai’da.

But we cannot achieve our objectives abroad without strengthening education at home. In the National Security Strategy, the President argues that "to allow each American to pursue the opportunity upon which our prosperity depends, we must build a stronger foundation for economic growth … [including] access to a complete and competitive education for every American."

The National Security Strategy also set a new goal: restore U.S. leadership in higher education by leading the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020.

Community colleges have a vital role to play in achieving this goal. As President Obama highlighted, "community 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." This is why President Obama, Dr. Biden, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan set an additional goal: an additional five million community college graduates in the next ten years.

Community colleges are not only essential to the livelihoods of millions of families across the United States looking to improve their own fortunes, but are critical to America’s competitive drive, spirit, and economic ingenuity in the shifting global economy of the 21st century. As the President rightfully pointed out, America’s leadership depends on a well-educated, highly skilled workforce, for which community colleges are an essential ingredient.

President Obama spoke about this challenge at the White House Summit and about the unprecedented federal support for community colleges, including $2 billion over four years to fund the Community College and Career Training initiative. This funding builds the Obama Administration’s investment in ensuring Americans have access to U.S. community colleges, including more than $3.5 billion in student financial assistance in the form of Pell Grants, over $1 billion in workforce training programs at community colleges, and $40 million in work study funds to help community college students pay for their education.

I also want to mention the critical role public-private partnerships are playing in strengthening community colleges. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Completion by Design, which aims to dramatically improve community college graduation rates through a competitive grant program of $35 million over five years. But even with public and private support, we know community colleges face tough economic times. Yet we are confident that together, we can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, including the 2020 goals laid out by the President.

Community colleges are the backbone of American higher education, enrolling more than 8 million students. Community colleges are in a truly unique position able to offer affordable, flexible, convenient, and accessible higher education opportunities. We praise you for extending an open hand and working with businesses, industry, labor, and governments from across the Americas to create tailored training programs to meet our national educational and economic needs.

When you look at the success of community colleges in the United States, it is no wonder that they have become a model for increasing access to higher education across the globe. It is also no wonder that U.S. community colleges are playing an expanding role not only in the education of U.S. students, but also in the education of international students. If you look around the world, it is easy to see that many other countries share the same values that are central to the missions of your institutions, as they seek a better future and access to affordable higher education, particularly when there is economic uncertainty.

The 21st century will be increasingly urbanized, demanding more skills from the workforce than any period in human history. For the first time in history, cities are home to more than half of the world’s population – a number that is expected to rise to over 70% over the next twenty years. People move to cities in part to find better access to services, and a higher quality of life. But to provide the services and infrastructure required to keep pace with growth, local governments and economies need skilled workers – exactly the sort of skilled workers trained in so many community college programs.

We see this most acutely in a competitive global environment, where a quality education from primary school all the way through to higher education is one of the most highly sought-after resources. For example, from 1999 to 2007, total global enrollment in colleges and universities rose by 58 million, an almost 60% increase. In the developing world, the increase is even more dramatic – a 94% increase over eight years.

If we look at the growing challenges posed by urbanization, we believe that there will be a substantial increase in demand for higher, more technical education that can be filled by community colleges. Whether you are in Denver, Colorado or Delhi, India, families and students want affordable tuition, open admission policies, flexible course schedules, and convenient locations.

These values have been echoed and amplified in the United Nations’ Education for All Goals. Driven by the Education for All Goals and the importance of higher education, other nations have begun to emulate what works in education: the American community college.

Around the world, countries are looking at the community college model to increase workforce preparedness and college graduation among their own citizens. As Dr. Biden said earlier this month, "Community colleges are one of America’s best-kept secrets." Well, the secret is out, and the world is catching on to the great work that you are all doing.

You won’t be surprised then, when I confidently say that community colleges – American community colleges – have a bright future ahead of them. Your institutions are resilient and have adapted to changing economies. Today, the United States needs community colleges more than ever as our needs for education to keep pace in a global economy continue to grow. For example, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast those requiring no college experience.

Our needs for innovative programs and training targeted at new industries will also grow. Over the next decade, nearly 8 in 10 new jobs will require higher education and workforce training. Community colleges work at the forefront of training workers for some of our most highly-skilled and high demand occupations.

But if we are to meet the President’s goal of creating the best-educated, most competitive work force in the world, we need to face seize the opportunities of the 21st century offered by an increasingly globalized and interconnected world.

This century will marked by economies, societies, and people interconnected as never before. We need to equip our students, including adults in between jobs, with the skills and tools to succeed at home and abroad in the global marketplace of business and ideas. Dr. Biden pointed out that "Americans need the skills and expertise that are relevant to the emerging jobs of the future."

Today, community colleges are on the front lines of international education, and there is much to emulate. Community colleges are partnering with community and technical colleges around the world. Last June, the Department of Education, the State Department, and USAID hosted a conference on community and technical colleges in Amman, Jordan. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, and Jordan are among the countries working with U.S. institutions to connect education and workforce development in high-tech, high-demand fields.

Community colleges are offering their own affordable study abroad programs. Let me give an example. The California Colleges for International Education has spearheaded efforts in California, where 14 community colleges each send more than 100 students abroad a year.

We know that building a robust international education can be difficult, especially with the budget constraints faced by community colleges across the United States. But there are many ways to think globally and act locally.

Take, for example, Sinclair Community College’s Dayton Model UN Conference – the only Model UN conference hosted by a community college. The conference offers students a chance to debate the real problems facing the international community.

Many community colleges are also using information communication technology to develop links around the world. Using tools like Skype, students are interacting with their peers from around the world, and taking advantage of the fact that more people today than ever before have access to a technology platform for innovation, entrepreneurship, and education.

Community colleges are also building rich international communities on their campuses that offer students and faculty new and dynamic chances to interact and exchange ideas. In 2009, community colleges enrolled about 96,000 foreign students – roughly 14 percent of all foreign students in the United States, and this number is going up. This places community colleges in an excellent position to take advantage of the cultural and linguistic diversity on campus.

We know that U.S. students and scholars benefit equally from engaging with their counterparts around the world to drive innovation and advance human knowledge. Think about the numerous opportunities for collaboration, the critical role that community colleges, their students faculty, and researchers can play in creating the vital partnerships and exchanges that promote international understanding and cooperation.

The U.S. Department of State, USAID, and the Department of Education are also ready to support the efforts of American community colleges to become more involved in international education and develop international ties. The United States and the entire world benefit when we utilize the unique resource represented by U.S. community colleges to meet today’s challenges. It is our goal to enhance the capacities of higher education institutions, particularly in developing countries, to effectively contribute to economic, political and social development.

One way we support American community college is through USAID’s Higher Education for Development Program, an initiative that supports capacity-building by fostering partnerships between U.S. higher education institutions and their counterpart institutions in host countries.

Since 1987, this program and its predecessors have launched more than 300 partnerships that have strengthened the institutional capacity of more than 200 developing country higher education, research, and training institutions in about 60 countries.

The program has led to innovative collaboration and exchanges between community colleges in the United States and partner Universities around the globe. In June, we announced four winners in the Broader Middle East and North Africa – U.S. Community College Small Grants Initiative competition.

One of the four partnerships that was awarded funding was the partnership created between Red Rocks Community College in Colorado and Jordanian based Al-Huson University College, which is part of Al-Balqa Applied University.

This partnership will focus on expanding Jordan’s Green Collar Workforce with the goal of establishing an Associate Degree Program in Solar Energy Technology. The second objective is set up a student and faculty exchange program that will lead to long-term collaboration focused on joint curriculum development and teacher strategies.

This is just one example of many great partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa that we are fostering through our support for community colleges and higher education.

We also encourage U.S. community college students to apply for the Gilman Scholarships, which support study abroad by American undergraduates with financial need. Community college students are also eligible for our Critical Language Scholarship summer study institutes abroad.

We are also working to bring students from around the world to U.S. community colleges. The State Department has numerous Education USA centers around the globe, which provide information to foreign students who want to study in the United States. These centers accurately describe the U.S. community college option to prospective international students and their families, many of whom are discovering community colleges are an affordable way to begin their pursuit of a four-year degree.

Through the Community College Initiative Program, the United States is enabling individuals recruited from historically underserved populations internationally to spend one year studying at community colleges in the United States and earn a vocational certificate.

We are also rapidly expanding this program. In the first academic year of the program 2007-2008 we brought 82 participants to the United States. For the 2009-2010 academic year, we brought 553 international students from 14 countries to the U.S. These students studied at more than 50 community colleges in 23 states.

While they are here, the participants in the Community College Initiative Program are actively involved with their local U.S. communities. Let me give you three examples. Four Egyptian students at Tallahassee Community College in Florida offered a free Arabic class to the college community. Two students from Turkey studying media and communications at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, hosted their own shows on the college radio station, producing music and news broadcasts for the community. An 18-year old student from Brazil campaigned for student government and was elected a student senator.

In a world without borders, the Community College Initiative Program is particularly important as participants return home with new skills and experiences that enable them to contribute to the growth, development and prosperity of their countries and societies. Participants study agriculture, applied engineering, business management and administration, health professions, information technology, media, and tourism and hospitality management. We know that our community colleges in the United States have unique strengths in these fields.

In addition to providing opportunities for students, the State Department is also focused on enhancing the professional development of community college faculty and administrators through opportunities for international exchanges. We cannot prepare our students for the 21st century if we do not also equip our college professors and administrators for the 21st century.

For U.S. community college faculty and administrators, there are several opportunities, including participating in the Fulbright Scholar Program which would allow you to lecture or do research abroad.

The U.S. Intensive Summer Language Institutes provide fellowships for U.S. teachers, including community college faculty, to study Chinese and Arabic abroad, designed to increase the study and teaching of critical languages in the United States. I also note the "100,000 Strong" program that works with China.

The United States is bringing administrators and faculty from technical colleges overseas to the U.S. for intensive programs at U.S. community colleges that are enabling international educators to adapt best practices of the U.S. community college model. In addition, U.S. community colleges can host international faculty under the Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Program, which is designed to help internationalize campuses in the United States.

We have also brought foreign educational leaders to the U.S. for professional visits to learn more about our higher education system, including community colleges, and explore collaboration.

The United States is also working with the UN and international partners to promote community colleges and higher education. We are working with UNESCO, which is strategically situated to help advance progress in education.

Around the world, UNESCO is establishing and maintaining global momentum to improve access and quality of education for all. Their programs building capacity in developing countries, strengthen education systems emerging from conflict, and build skills for the 21st century through Education for All, the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment, the UN Girls Education Initiative, and countless other efforts. Today, we are working with UNESCO to promote the community college model as a way to address technical and vocational education needs around the world.

UNESCO is also strengthening higher education in the developing world through the University Twinning and Network Scheme and UNESCO Chairs programs. The UNESCO Chairs Program encourages higher education institutions, including community colleges, from different countries to work collaboratively on projects related to UNESCO’s mission. This program helps build relationships and share research and expertise with institutions in developed and developing countries as well as regions in transition.

All of these programs also contribute to greater understanding of the United States by opening a window to our culture and society and breaking down barriers that divide us. As President Obama said in his Cairo speech, "So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity."

While we have great tasks ahead of us to meet the President’s goals for higher education, I am confident that American community colleges will continue to create new relationships which bring us together around our shared values: affordable, accessible, and high quality education.

I will close here. When President Obama spoke at the White House Summit on Community Colleges, he spotlighted the Administration’s firm commitment to, "A new future filled with possibilities." He said, "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." I believe the President’s message of opportunity and hope for millions truly transcends borders and is shared by the entire world.

To that end, I want to join the President and repeat his message that we must work together on behalf of community colleges – not only to harness the limitless talents and hard work of every single American, but to expand the successful model of education, at our community colleges, that has benefited millions in the United States, to lift the rising tide of higher education beyond our shores to be shared globally.

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