A new task force by the progressive think tank, The Century Foundation, will focus on strengthening community colleges with the intention of saving them from becoming “separate and unequal” institutions.

The Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal will address questions of access, affordability and post-graduation opportunities, as well as intersecting race and class issues.

The 20-member group from academia, philanthropic institutions and the private sector will be co-chaired by Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library and former president of Amherst College, and Eduardo Padron, the president of Miami Dade College.

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said community colleges are central to economic recovery and job creation, calling on businesses to partner with community colleges to make the American workforce more competitive in the global economy.

“Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte and Orlando and Louisville are up and running,” Obama said. “Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers — places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.”.

However, to sustain the current political and economic interest in community colleges, a new and innovative way of diversifying the student profile needs to be addressed, says Padron.

“While two-year institutions must always provide access to low-income and working-class students, community colleges need to find ways to recruit middle-class students as well, or the political and financial support for the two-year sector will continue to decline,” Padron said in a statement.

But as Marx points out, community colleges are becoming increasingly segregated by race and class from four-year institutions. “If the better funded four-year sector caters to wealthier white students, while community colleges lose funding to educate low-income and minority students, the two-year sector will remain separate and unequal,” Marx said.

The group will have its first meeting on Feb. 17 and will include a special presentation by Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter.

The project is financially supported by the Ford Foundation.