Calling them the "unsung heroes of America's education system," Obama said community colleges "may not get the credit they deserve, they may not get the same resources as other schools, but they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life."
Obama made his comments in the East Room at the start of a daylong meeting with officials from some of the nation's 1,200 community colleges along with businesses and philanthropies. It was the first such gathering at the White House.
Jill Biden, herself a community college teacher and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, presided. The purpose was to boost the schools that provide millions of students with skills training and a less expensive path to a college degree - even as they're increasingly challenged by climbing enrollments and high dropout rates.
A month from crucial midterm elections, Obama also used the occasion to accuse congressional Republicans of wanting to slash education spending, as he continued to try to paint an alarming contrast with the GOP.
"We are in a fight for the future, a fight that depends on education," the president said. Cutting spending would be "like unilaterally disarming our troops right as they head to the front lines."
Obama signed legislation this year pumping $2 billion into community colleges - $500 million a year for four years - although that was far less than advocates had hoped for.
Community colleges saw a 17 percent enrollment surge between 2007 and 2009 as the economic downturn sent laid-off workers searching for new skills ,and tight budgets forced families to downsize educational goals for their children. At the same time, the colleges are themselves badly underfunded and forced to spend heavily on remedial education for poorly prepared students.
The White House summit came a day after the president announced a new public-private partnership linking major corporations like the Gap and McDonald's with community colleges to improve job training. Obama said the privately funded Skills for America's Future program would make it easier to connect job-seeking students with businesses looking to hire.
The event also featured commitments from private institutions including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced the launch of a $35 million, five-year competitive grant program to boost community college graduation rates.
Given the strains on community colleges, it will be a challenge to transform them into a greater engine of change than they already are. Martha Kanter, undersecretary of education, said just 25 percent of community college students get a certificate or an associate's degree or transfer to a four-year institution within three years of enrollment.
Obama's goal of adding 5 million more community college graduates over the next decade would represent a 50 percent increase in the number of students graduating, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. It's a crucial piece of Obama's goal for the U.S. to produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
Despite the challenges, respondents in a new poll by The Associated Press and Stanford University were generally positive about the quality of education offered by community colleges. Nearly 70 percent said the quality of education at community colleges is excellent or good. When asked whether colleges prepare students for the work force, 62 percent said yes for community colleges and 68 percent said yes for four-year schools.