At a Community College Workforce Alliance meeting today here in Richmond, Virginia, there were clear signs of heightened interest in the role that community colleges can play in advancing entrepreneurship as a means of getting Americans back to work. Following support from President Barack Obama and Startup America, plus a recent announcement of a $1 million grant from the Kauffman Foundation to scale one model to more schools around the country, a new generation of educators appear intent on maximizing the potential of their communities to produce more new innovative firms.

Community colleges have always been considered a key player in providing the workforce with the education and skills necessary to find sustainable employment. However, more and more community college leaders have recognized the need to also prepare students that look to create jobs too. Thanks to the efforts of many visionary community college leaders, these institutions of higher education are becoming more important actors in America’s entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Because of their ability to reach a large number of people and to offer quality programs, President Obama has spoken out about the role of community colleges in entrepreneurship and they have become major partners in Startup America. As part of their commitment to the Startup America Partnership, community colleges, through the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), launched a pilot program to establish a Virtual Incubation Network at 11 colleges in 11 states in collaboration with the National Association of Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) and the U.S. Small Business Administration. NACCE, as a founding affiliate of the Startup America Partnership, has also launched aPresidents for Entrepreneurship Forum program to help leaders of 170 community colleges throughout the country to increase the focus on entrepreneurship at their institutions by committing to creating internal and external teams dedicated to entrepreneurship promotion and industry engagement.

At the meeting I spoke at today in Richmond, it is clear that entrepreneurship will be front and center in the future focus for Virginia’s community colleges. Today’s “Entrepreneur Education Summit” at the Community College Workforce Alliance in Richmond was hosted by Jeff Mitchell, Chairman of the State Board for Community Colleges, and timed deliberately to occur during a state celebration of the entrepreneur. In the midst of still lagging economic results, it was refreshing to participate in an event full of community college leaders committed to playing a greater role in stimulating economic development by providing knowledge resources for aspiring and emerging entrepreneurs.

The potential impact of community colleges on new business creation is enormous. It is estimated that the U.S. has 1,200 community colleges with a total student population that represents 46% of all U.S. undergraduates (around 11.5 million community college students). They serve a variety of students, from those seeking a 2-year degree, to those who want to transfer to a 4-year program, to vocationally-oriented programs or 9-12 week non-credit course like FastTrac, not to mention all the students who simply take spot courses to fill knowledge gaps. In the words of NACCE´s president in their latest journal, community colleges are “entrepreneurial epicenters in terms of accessibility, community engagement, affordability and the diversity of their student populations.”

There are many examples of community college entrepreneurship education that go beyond classes for credit to hands-on experience and support. For example, take the model for entrepreneurship education and early-stage funding for startups developed at Lorain County Community College in northeastern Ohio. Lorain’s on-campus incubator has advised more than 2,600 entrepreneurs and formally mentored over 100 companies through its Innovation Fund, a pre-seed fund that has awarded $5.6 million to 80 early-stage, technology-based companies. The LCCC effort is seen as so effective that last Friday the Kauffman Foundation announced $1 million Innovation Fund America grant to scale the model to more schools around the country and to build a national network to support them.

Edison Community College in Ohio, in turn, partners with the city´s small business development center and offers to its students an entrepreneurship boot camp. Many Small Business Development Centers actually operate on community college campuses. We also see colleges support student-led groups. I was astonished today at the polished brief by the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) from Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia who presented about many of their projects. I would like to hire them all.

Needless to say, our challenge has changed from a decade ago when the issue around entrepreneurship education was simply how many educational institutions offered an entrepreneurship curriculum or program. The challenge now is around the quality of the entrepreneurship education being offered. To help advance this, the Kauffman Foundation formed an educational research consortium to build an infrastructure to collect data and uncover the most effective teaching and learning methods.

As the Kauffman Panel on Entrepreneurship Curriculum in Higher Educationconcluded last year, a canon or single approach to entrepreneurship education is unrealistic given the wide array of educational models, practices and institutional types and the same is true for community colleges. However, there is more and more data emerging about the effectiveness of major interventions and programs to support nascent and new entrepreneurs whether stand-alone or connected to a higher education institution. This data is just as relevant for community colleges. Today’s gathering in Virginia and new resources like NACCE´s Quick Start Guides to colleges about how to establish entrepreneurship programs, offer plenty of ideas for institutions to explore in an effort to shift some of their focus onto new business creation.

Like entrepreneurs themselves, colleges have to respond to an ever changing economic landscape through innovative programs that prepare their students to create jobs and opportunities in diverse industries, and perhaps completely new industries. In their pursuit of preparing students to be productive citizens that sustain economic growth, entrepreneurship is not a luxury but the very essence of helping people solve problems and get things done. Community colleges are key allies in the search for ever more sophisticated and effective ways to teach entrepreneurship. President Obama and the Kauffman Foundation have been smart to recognize and encourage their engagement.