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Community Colleges – Road to Building Skills for the 21st Century

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Innovation in the 21st century has reshaped the world of work and civil society.  Innovation has redefined the knowledge and skills necessary to support emerging sectors of the economy.  Raising the overall level of educational attainment for all of our citizens is critical and addressing the skills gap in key industries is essential.

Community colleges are uniquely positioned to design their curricula to match local labor market conditions, making them flexible and relevant to today’s economy and job market. They are open access institutions committed to providing job-relevant educational opportunities to a broad population of students in their local communities. And their graduates are finding that they are able to participate in a knowledge-based economy, which demands a far greater level of credentialing and skills development than ever before.

The challenge, then, for the United States and India is to think of ways we can promote more opportunities for our diverse and dynamic populations to access these and other educational opportunities. When we do that, we can begin to provide 21st century job-skills linked to the global economy and responsive to local community needs.

President Obama is looking to community colleges to play a key role in increasing the number of U.S. college graduates and helping more Americans get the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in an increasingly interconnected global world.  In the United States, these institutions enroll more students than any other higher education sector, and almost half of all U.S. undergraduate students attend one of nearly 1,100 community colleges across the country.

Many of those colleges work closely with local employer partners to design course materials that lead to industry-recognized certificates and degrees.  And they are leading the way in preparing graduates for the fastest growing fields in the United States, such as healthcare, applied engineering, and green technologies.

India is faced with the similar challenge of educating its population for rapidly emerging fields, such as automotive and healthcare technologies, and is exploring best practices in the community college model to help prepare Indians for these new jobs.  It is taking steps to enable the development of a national network of community colleges in order to meet workforce demands and sustain its impressive economic growth and social prosperity as a nation.

In February, the U.S. was honored to participate in the International Community College Conference hosted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which focused on creating a network of 200 community colleges with strong ties to industry in order to equip more people with the skills and knowledge to drive India’s future.  Under Minister Pallam Raju’s leadership, the government has established the National Skill Development Agency (NSDA) to coordinate and streamline the skill development efforts of the government and the private sector to achieve the nation’s skilling targets.

There are many successful models in the U.S. to consider. Many community college-industry partnerships begin with a workforce need expressed by an individual employer. Other partnerships begin with a community college that recognizes a regional economic sector challenge and calls upon businesses to help it meet the challenge.

In Washington, Spokane Community College is working with the Boeing Company and other local aerospace companies to improve aerospace workforce training in the entire state.  And in Maryland, GlaxoSmithKline provides scholarships to encourage students at Montgomery Community College to pursue careers in the bio-manufacturing field. These companies partner with community colleges to invest in students with the kind of expertise they need – and the students are presented with real and specific career paths.

To further these kinds of partnerships, the Obama Administration has made a historic investment in community colleges through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program.  This program, administered jointly by the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, provides U.S. community colleges with additional resources to build and expand short-term career training programs, in partnership with employers, to prepare students for employment in high-wage, high-skill occupations.

The United States and India are both looking closely at emerging industries as target sectors in which to train our youth or provide new skills for professionals so that they can advance their lives and seek secure futures for themselves and their families.  During Minister Pallam Raju’s recent visit to Washington, we reiterated our joint commitment to deliver high quality, cost-effective instruction for students to access knowledge.  Few missions could be more important or timely.

The upcoming U.S.-India Higher Education Dialogue will provide another opportunity for our two countries to deepen our partnerships and consider ways to advance the prosperity of our nations, individually and collectively.  Offering opportunities for affordable higher education that prepare students for the modern workforce is an ambitious, achievable goal.  We look forward to continued cooperation with India and we applaud India’s commitment to develop a system of community colleges

Tara D. Sonenshine is the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Martha Kanter is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education