A recent report from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) begins with the direct, but data-supported, statement, “The American Dream is imperiled.” A product of the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, the report, “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future,” outlines the challenges facing our country and the measures needed to reclaim the American Dream. The goals in the report are lofty, but doing nothing is not an option. Nothing less than the future of our country is at stake, and community colleges will be at the heart of future success.

A big part of the American Dream is enabling our children to achieve more than our generation. Between 1972 and 2000, the report finds that median family income “stagnated,” and since 2000, it has actually dropped by 7 percent. Study after study shows the correlation between education, income level and other measures of success. An educated population contributes greatly to our society and is an essential element to global competitiveness. The United States now ranks 16th in the world in college completion rates for 25- to 34-year-olds. Community colleges are at the perfect intersection to make a difference in this ranking, and change is necessary to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

AACC President and CEO Dr. Walter Bumphus served as the speaker for Waubonsee Community College’s recent commencement ceremony. A visionary education leader, he experienced first-hand how Waubonsee is working to increase the number of graduates who can immediately impact the local economy or continue their educations. We are extremely proud that the last two graduating classes have been the largest in Waubonsee’s history. However, we and our sister institutions know that there is still much to be done. Community colleges must continue the constant quality improvements necessary to increase the number of people earning college degrees and certificates by 50 percent before 2020 — a total of 5 million more students holding these valuable credentials.

The 21st-Century Commission’s report calls for community colleges to focus on three “Rs” to meet this challenge. Community colleges must redesign students’ educational experiences, reinvent institutional roles and reset the system. Closing the skills gap, tackling college readiness and increasing completion rates will positively impact students’ educational experience. Reinventing institutional roles will require that colleges refocus on what it means to educate in the 21st century and partner with outside organizations to truly meet the employment needs of today’s workplace. Finally, resetting the system asks community colleges as a whole to promote rigor, transparency and accountability, while also examining public and private funding sources that will be necessary to deliver student success. Fortunately, Waubonsee Community College, and other Illinois community colleges, are already making great progress on these goals.

Community colleges are an American invention. Over the past century, the community college system has grown to 1,132 community colleges nationwide that now educate 13 million students each year, many the first in their family to attend college. We are proud to be a part of this network and look forward to another century of meeting community economic and educational needs.