Education Secretary-designate Arne Duncan. (AP Photo)
Tallahassee, FL -- January 26, 2012 --
The day after President Barack Obama called on community colleges to help produce two million new jobs during his State of the Union address, a member of the president's cabinet came to Tallahassee Community College to learn and listen. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hosted a town hall event at TCC on Wednesday, January 25, with a focus on adult education and the role of workforce training in rebuilding the economy. He was joined by Jim Murdaugh, TCC president, John Chapin, TCC’s vice president for workforce development, and Ann Smith, chief nursing officer for Capital Regional Medical Center.
The community turned out in full force, with every seat filled and lines queued up at the microphones for the chance to have a dialogue with Duncan. Questions ran the gamut of education issues—from early education to K-12 standardized testing to adult education, workforce training and certificate programs.
One town hall participant wanted to know what help would be offered to part-time college students facing many obstacles to finishing their education.
Duncan turned to TCC President Jim Murdaugh for comment. "At community colleges," Murdaugh said, "the challenges students face are different than the challenges students face at universities." The panel agreed that financial assistance should be available for part-time students and those enrolled in non-degree programs that lead to job certification.
Duncan said that the high school dropout rate nationwide is about 25 percent, rising to close to 40 percent for minority students. He noted that there are approximately 240,000 ninth graders in Florida, but only 172,000 twelfth graders—which means the state is losing 68,000 young people to the streets each year. Duncan explained that President Obama wants to address the high dropout rate by changing the rules so students may not leave school until they reach age 18 or graduate.
"We've got to work together to do better. We can't accept the status quo," Duncan said. "I can't overstate how important the role community colleges are going to play, helping our country get back to where we want to go."
Two audience members questioned the federal Race to the Top and Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Duncan said that assessments should be safety nets, and some changes are needed for them to be more meaningful and useful. He said that he would like to see teachers’ salaries increase significantly in the next few years.
Another issue discussed was the difficulty many students in adult education and non-credit workforce training programs experience trying to qualify for financial aid. Outside of special grants or corporate funds, they are usually ineligible to receive the financial aid and scholarships taken advantage of by full-time and credit-program students. TCC’s Kristina Pereira, adult education specialist, pointed out that these students are often seeking to overcome unemployment by updating their skills or training to transition between careers—and thus are the students most needing and deserving of financial assistance.
Duncan acknowledged the contradiction these students face. “I encourage you to push our administration on this issue.”
Duncan said that community colleges are “uniquely positioned to help people get the skills they need” for high-tech, high-skilled and high-paying jobs, echoing how President Obama described community colleges in his speech the night before as “places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.” Duncan said that TCC's Center for Workforce Development is doing an excellent job training individuals to meet specific needs of local employers. “TCC’s model leads to real jobs in the community.”
As U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan envisions higher education leading the way in rebuilding the American economy and sees adult education playing a prominent role. “The United States ranks 16th in the number of college graduates. We used to lead the world. The pipeline to return to the top position is through adult education.”
TCC has accepted the call to leadership. The College has established partnerships with more than two dozen businesses in the Big Bend, matching students’ training with specific private sector needs. In 2010, TCC opened its Advanced Manufacturing Training Center, which offers programs designed to appeal to those who are just entering the workforce and to career-changers. The College also offers adult education classes in Gadsden, Leon and Wakulla counties, and provides flexible education options for learners of all ages, such as day, evening and online classes and express sessions.