Obama’s belief in community colleges began in Chicago

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On cold and blistery January evening in 2004, I met then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama at the corner of Jackson and Franklin in Chicago’s Loop. I escorted him into the district offices of the City Colleges of Chicago, where I was a professor, and up to a 14th floor conference room. Waiting for us in that crowded room, were district and college bigwigs, along with a handful of my most promising political science students. At the time, Obama was running for the U.S. Senate and gearing up for a March primary election.


This was not the first time the state senator had met my community college students or me. Each spring, my students participated in a “mock government” simulation that took place at the state capital in Springfield. I always counted on Obama to be one of the very first state legislators to respond affirmatively to my annual requests for meetings with students. During our visits to Springfield, he gave tours of the Capitol building and legislative chambers, all the while talking to, and most important, listening to my students.

My students were overwhelmingly poor minorities, from some of the toughest and most disadvantaged areas of Chicago. These annual trips to the state capital provided many students with their first hotel stays, and experiences outside of their isolated and impoverished city neighborhoods.

Barack Obama came to the City Colleges of Chicago on that frigid January evening, at my request, to learn more about community colleges, our needs, our struggles and our triumphs over adversity. Our hope was that if elected to the U.S. Senate, Obama would champion our cause and our students. We had no idea at the time what an important champion he would become, and how he would continue, through his presidency, to shine the spotlight on community colleges.

On July 14, 2009, just six months into his presidency, President Obama announced the American Graduation Initiative (AGI) at Macomb County Community College in Michigan. This initiative was proposed as a means to increase the number of college graduates in the United States.

In his speech announcing the initiative, Obama said “it will reform and strengthen community colleges from coast to coast so that they get the resources students and schools need – and the results workers and businesses demand.” This new-found attention was important for community colleges, which have long been the neglected stepchild of American higher education. Although Obama’s ambitious $12 billion plan to increase college attainment by 2020 was blocked by Republicans in Congress, the final bill did, in the end, produce a $2 billion career-training program for community colleges, administered by the Department of Labor.

In October of 2010, President Obama assembled and led, along with Dr. Jill Biden, the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges. In his opening remarks, the president said that 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.”

In 2012, President Obama once again brought increased attention to community colleges, calling for an $8 billion federal investment in a “Community College to Career” fund, largely modeled after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “College to Careers” (C2C) program at the City Colleges of Chicago. According to the White House, this fund would support job-training programs in growing and high-demand fields.

Although the legislation failed to make it out of committee and federal funds have yet to materialize, the president’s continued use of the bully pulpit to bring attention to community colleges has put these too often overlooked institutions on the national education agenda. In fact, just last week, when he proposed making two years of community college tuition free for responsible students, Obama called community colleges the “centerpiece” of his “education agenda.”

Academics, politicians and pundits have argued that Congress is unlikely to support the president’s latest community college initiative, which will be further highlighted in his upcoming State of the Union address. They question the efficacy of his proposal, which is presumed to be dead on arrival in Congress. In the end, President Obama’s call for universal access to a community college education may not materialize.

But the spotlight has again been cast on community colleges, and the president has, as I hoped on that cold January night in 2004, championed our cause and our students. That, in and of itself, is a good thing.

Constance A. Mixon is professor emeritus of political science at the City Colleges of Chicago. In 2001, she was named the “Illinois Professor of the Year” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Dr. Mixon currently serves as director of the Urban Studies Program at Elmhurst College and is the co-editor of Twenty-First Century Chicago.

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