While I didn’t attend yesterday’s White House community college summit, having not been invited other pressing engagements, I’m told by those who were there that it featured many genuinely substantive discussions about access, cost, and quality in the two-year sector. That’s a good thing. While I don’t think one can honestly say that the Obama administration has come up with a legitimate Plan B since the American Graduation Initiative went down in flames earlier this year, presidential time matters and this will help community colleges emerge from their perpetual status as under-resourced, under-researched, and under-recognized.
One concrete effort announced yesterday was the new $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. To me this an example of philanthropic money wisely spent. Higher education is a mammoth, diverse, and largely autonomous sector of society. Nobody, not even the federal government, has enough money to bribe it into changing fundamentally. (Nor would it work very well if even they did.) College leaders and educators have to want to be different. The best way to do that is to appeal to what matters to them: status and prestige. Prestige in the four-year sector is based on wealth, fame, and exclusivity. Not having any of those things, prestige in the two-year sector basically doesn’t exist. That’s what a Prize for Excellence can change, creating student-centered terms of excellence to which institutions can aspire.