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State’s Sonenshine at International College Conference in India

06 February 2013

U.S. Department of State
Remarks by Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
India's Ministry of Human Resource Development
New Delhi, India
February 6, 2013

Remarks at the International Community College Conference

Thank you for that introduction. I am delighted to be here on my first official visit to India. What better way to start that visit than by attending this important conference?

First of all, I want to thank Minister Pallum Raju and the Ministry of Human Resource Development for inviting me to speak. Let me also extend greetings to the representatives from the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Your presence here – along with our own U.S. representatives – speaks volumes. It says: we are in this together and that we are committed to working together, sharing ideas, and exploring creative partnerships – and finding answers to some very important questions.

What are these questions?

If I could boil it down to one, it would be this: How do we provide opportunities for our young people so that they can build the skills and knowledge they need to drive our future – and to address the major challenges of the 21st century?

That’s what I want to talk about today.

As you know, the so-called “youth bulge” is growing in very critical areas of the world. There are 600 million people under the age of 25 in India alone. What a ripe educational gold mine of young minds.

How do we give them access to an education that will get them jobs? How do we find the resources for such an undertaking? And how do we scale up our solutions to match that population?

These are questions that India has courageously committed to embrace. And we are committed to working with you. How we work together, share ideas and resources, and how we open educational avenues for young people – all of that will be educational for us all.

All over the world, government, educational, and private sector leaders are grappling with these challenges – from London to Wellington; from Toronto to Berlin and Canberra; and especially among the growing youth communities across the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa.

So we are here to learn as much from you – India – as share our own ideas. We do not claim to have all the answers. But we know that if we create an infrastructure that matches young people’s aspirations with the requirements of the private sector, we can make a promising start.

In the United States, we have seen how that promising start began with community colleges. We found this out in the 1930s – when our country was reeling under the worst depression in our history. We knew we needed to build a pipeline between young people out of work and companies who needed skilled workers. It was a simple equation of need and necessity, of supply and demand.

Cut to the year 2013. Today, we have more than 1100 community colleges, and they are educating almost half of our undergraduates. As President Obama said, community colleges have become – quote – “the unsung heroes of America's education system.” As he put it, they “provide a gateway [for] millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.”

With productive industries – in turn strengthened by qualified and equally productive workers – we can contribute to the growth of our economies. We can also help millions of young people – of any religion, socioeconomic background, or ethnicity – set a prosperous course for the rest of their lives.

I want to revisit that last point. We need to empower people who come from all levels of society, with all ambitions. While we certainly welcome those who want to become doctors and engineers, we also welcome those who seek to pursue jobs in new industries and sectors and may not need a traditional four-year education to build their skills.

By attending community colleges that are strengthened by creative partnerships with other colleges and universities and that have a symbiotic connection with the private sector – those students can find meaningful employment. And they can help strengthen industries that are the bedrock of society. On that note, I’d like to acknowledge the representatives from some of those industries who are here today, from the automotive to the hospitality industries.

Let me make another point about extending the parameters of the people to whom we reach out and support. When we open doors for young women; for our socioeconomically challenged populations; and our ethnic and religious minorities, we will increase our future talent pool of productive citizens and problem solvers.

Imagine the possibilities, if we add more women to the field of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. Imagine how much more we can do to maximize our chances of addressing bigger and deeper problems, such as reducing incidents of gender violence, solving economic inequality, facilitating conflict resolution, addressing climate change, and improving human rights and freedoms – just to name a few examples.

That is why we are so appreciative of Minister Pallum Raju’s leadership and the Government of India’s dedication to deepening higher education collaboration between our two countries.

India and the United States have a long history of educational exchange and collaboration. The Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, which has committed to $10 million over five years to institutional partnerships, is one example. So is the Fulbright-Nehru Program that has benefitted thousands of Indian and American students, scholars, and researchers for more than 60 years.

Education is so critical to our relationship that we established the U.S.-India Higher Education Dialogue as one pillar of our Strategic Dialogue.

The first expanded Higher Education Dialogue was last May – and I was honored to co-chair it. It was a productive beginning, as we discussed ways to foster cooperation in higher education, research and innovation, and community colleges.

One of our major outcomes was the commitment to work together as India establishes more than 200 new community colleges. We look forward to achieving that outcome by expanding and deepening our cooperation.

Now what will that cooperation look like? It starts with supporting strong interaction between our higher education communities at many levels: national and state government; college to college; person to person. We can achieve these things by increasing our exchanges, by seeking greater academic collaboration, and by bringing in private sector leaders as partners.

I want to briefly mention two examples in the United States. How about Silicon Valley? You might say that’s a pretty successful business model. A great number of its skilled workers – the engineers, the managers, marketers, and salespeople – are graduates of two-year community colleges in the state of California, not whiz kids from Harvard or Yale. This surprised me when I found this out. A partnership between the community colleges and Silicon Valley business leaders made that possible.

Let me give you another more specific example. St. Louis Community College, a little community college in Missouri. Not Harvard. Not MIT. It has a direct partnership with Boeing, one of our biggest aerospace companies. Boeing teamed up with the school and created training classes in aircraft assembly techniques. After students went through their training and graduated from school, they applied for jobs at Boeing. Since November 2007, 191 students have undertaken this specialized training at St. Louis Community College. You want to know how many students got a job with Boeing? 160. That’s an 82 percent job placement rate.

Now, those are models that work.

We believe there are valuable lessons to be learned from this experience, from the U.S. community college model. We are deeply encouraged by Minister Pallum Raju’s clear commitment to making substantial investments in education and skills training. He understands this is one of the best ways that India’s graduates can become the drivers of its economy and the problem-solvers of our collective, global challenges.

We have the same hopes and goals in America. We are looking to our community colleges to produce an additional 5 million graduates by 2020. We are depending on them to grow our competitiveness.

Just as MIT and other U.S. universities partnered with the nascent IITs and other premier institutions of higher education in the 1950s and 1960s, now is the time for partnering between our community college leaders and institutions.

Imagine what more we can do by working together. Imagine what we can learn from one another. Imagine the innovative partnerships we can create, particularly as India scales up the variety of educational opportunities available to its citizens. Expanding cooperation into the realm of community colleges and building new partnerships focused on skills building will benefit both our economies and foster the creativity and entrepreneurship our countries will need to face 21st century challenges.

Thank you.