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ATE @ 20: Sustaining Success and Advancing Innovation "Reflecting on the Past, Reinvigorating the Future" - Remarks at the American Association of Community Colleges ATE National Conference

October 23, 2013
ATE @ 20: Sustaining Success and Advancing Innovation "Reflecting on the Past, Reinvigorating the Future" - Remarks at the American Association of Community Colleges ATE National Conference

It’s a pleasure to be here tonight and a tremendous honor to be speaking before this distinguished group, which includes so many of the people who have brought the Advanced Technological Education Program to life.

Let me first applaud each of you for having the vision and tenacity to bring ATE to your institutions. You have been responsible for taking this program from drawing board to chalk board to keyboard, and you deserve the ultimate credit for its success.

Since all of you are directly involved in ATE, I’d like to take a moment to tell you how I became a part of this effort. Although we are celebrating its 20th anniversary today, the idea for the ATE program was actually hatched over 25 years ago!

As some of you may know, my district, which includes North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, is one of the fastest-growing centers of research and higher education in the country. And so in November of 1987, my first year in Congress, I held a hearing on workplace literacy in Raleigh as a member of the House Science Committee.

Although the Research Triangle was already a hotbed for science and technology research and high-tech industry, it was becoming clear that our workforce was not keeping pace with the demands of the market. The investments we had made to develop and recruit high tech industries in North Carolina, and the economic development it had generated, were not going to be sustainable without improving the scientific and technical skills of our workforce. Nor were thousands of under-educated North Carolinians going to be able to benefit from our investments.

On a broader scale, the nation was not going to be able to compete in the global marketplace if its own workforce wasn’t prepared to do so—and, unlike the manufacturing jobs of old, in the global economy the good jobs required at least two years of training beyond high school.

At the 1987 field hearing, I asked former Governor Bob Scott, who was then president of the North Carolina community college system, to comment on the dilemma. He expressed concern that the federal government was placing too low a priority on scientific and technical literacy, in particular, and on the community college system in general.

President Scott’s comments really resonated with me, not just because I am myself a product of a two-year college (Mars Hill, then a junior college, in Western North Carolina), but because as a policy maker I realized how shortsighted it was for our government to be focusing only on four-year colleges and universities, rather than fully utilizing our community college system. When something has that kind of impact on the nation’s global competitiveness, and that kind of “bang for your buck,” the federal government simply must make it a priority.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) exemplified the problem: while in the 1980s it already understood the importance of getting young children excited about science, and of course had supported higher education and advanced research from the beginning, we estimated that at most it was investing a grand total of $2 million per year at the community college level!

I thought we should change that, and I decided to introduce legislation setting up a partnership between the NSF and the community colleges. This built on an idea Pennsylvania Congressman Doug Walgren had developed during his years of leadership on the Science Committee. We never anticipated massive federal support but rather targeted grants, seed money, to facilitate the development and dissemination of especially promising ideas.

The goal was to upgrade curricula and teaching methods, and to enhance public-private collaboration, through centers of excellence and competitive grants. We also wanted to facilitate the passage from two-year to four-year institutions for students prepared to take that step.

It took two Congresses and the help of a number of colleagues on both sides of the aisle – as well as support from key Senators, most notably Senator Mikulski – to pass the legislation, and the result was the Advanced Technological Education Program. The first Bush Administration and the NSF initially resisted. But to their credit, once ATE was established, they embraced it and administered it effectively.
You are all familiar with this one-of-a-kind program and its intent: to boost the general science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) knowledge of students at 2 year colleges; to support professional development programs for educators who teach prospective technicians; and to foster partnerships among industry, professional organizations, community colleges, and other education sectors to work on national and regional approaches to key issues in specific technology fields.

At its inception, the program supported three centers around the nation. Today, there are 39 centers and more than 200 other technician education projects supported by the program. Nearly 1,000 ATE grants have been awarded to institutions in every state plus Guam and Puerto Rico. In 2011 alone, ATE-funded institutions worked with over 3,000 education organizations, taught more than 80,000 students in STEM classes, and offered more than 2,500 professional development opportunities to students and educators.

I’m particularly proud of some of the work this program has done in my home state of North Carolina. At Wake Technical Community College, ATE funds have been used for a wide variety of purposes: developing degree programs for career technicians in plastics technology; creating a program to help prepare community college students for employment as technicians and administrators of "high performance" computer systems; and providing classroom-ready materials that demonstrate the real applications of mathematics and inform teachers and students about jobs in industry and the mathematical skills used in those jobs. I’m sure many of you in this room could provide similar stories. They give me great satisfaction, and they add up to impressive results.

For years, North Carolina’s leaders have recognized the critical role that technical and community colleges play as drivers of economic growth and renewal. Visionaries such as Terry Sanford understood that community colleges were not just a rising tide that would help lift generations of North Carolinians out of poverty; they were also a powerful magnet that would draw new businesses and industries to our state.
Fortunately, our national leaders have also shown a renewed commitment to technical and community colleges in recent years. President Obama has demonstrated commitment to our “unsung heroes” and made community colleges a key focus of his innovation agenda, with enthusiastic support from the Vice President’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who has taught in community colleges for the past 17 years. In the last academic year, 45 percent of undergraduates in the US were enrolled in two-year colleges.

ATE is one of the ways that we are effectively using our community college system to help better prepare the American workforce for high-tech careers. I am very proud to have been a part of this effort, both as the author of the original ATE legislation and as a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Innovation continues to underpin most of the major challenges facing our country and represents a key component in our ability to compete in the global economy, even more today than 25 years ago. Yet we spend less than 3 percent of our GDP on research and development, and federal funding for R&D as a fraction of GDP has declined by 60 percent in the past 40 years. Further, the United States is now ranked 37th among countries in terms of education spending in relation to GDP. We simply must do better.

In this era of sequestration, when many seem intent on demonstrating what it means to be penny-wise and pound-foolish, it is all the more important to fight for robust funding levels for NIH, NSF, DOE’s Office of Science, and other federal research agencies, for robust investments in education and training, and, of course, for ATE.

Community college leaders like yourselves can be powerful advocates. I urge you all to tell your story – share your successes and the impact your work has on your community and our nation. Talk to your community leaders and raise up the people who lead important work – the stars of your research and education efforts.

Our economy is continuing to recover, but recent economic struggles have exacerbated our budget deficit and will require some degree of belt-tightening in the coming years. But we need to understand that an effective economic policy is about making targeted investments -- the farthest thing from the mindless budget-cutting so fashionable in extremist political circles. There is no better cure for the deficit than a growing economy, and there is no better way to keep our economy growing than to maintain investments in job-creating policies such as ATE.

At an education forum we held in the 1980s, a panelist said, “Learning is a lifelong challenge, because in the new economy, you’ve got to reinvent your knowledge base throughout your life.” That statement still resonates, and it encapsulates what we must do, both to open the doors of economic opportunity for more and more of our citizens and to keep our economy growing and competitive. I know every one of you understands that very well.

Community colleges now form the bedrock of our nation’s technical education system. I look forward to working with you to ensure that our community colleges are the backbone for the continuing education that will be key to keeping our workforce trained and competitive in the global economy. And, I look forward to celebrating ATE again in another 20 years! Again, thank you for having me.