I applauded enthusiastically when President Obama announced the American Graduation Initiative to invest $12 billion in community colleges during the next decade.

As the former executive vice chancellor and university provost for The City University of New York, I was directly involved in the launch of an ambitious and successful program to increase graduation rates at CUNY’s six community colleges. Like the president, I hold as an article of faith the transformative effects of a community college education.

I appreciate the role community colleges play as gateways to the very tangible rewards of study in higher education.

As president of the University of Southern Maine, I am thrilled to have an American president who articulates so eloquently education’s promise.

For someone like me, a first-generation college student who has gone on to become the head of a university, witnessing President Obama’s advocacy is nothing short of inspiring.

A ROCKET TO SUCCESS

As a result of the world-class education that changed my life, I have committed my entire career to advancing education’s promise. The consequences of my college education catapulted me, and thousands like me, to places our parents never dreamed we could even visit.

However, I am neither sanguine nor satisfied with the performance of higher education. My dismay at our national rate of college attainment grows with each passing year. Compared with most of the industrialized world, America lags embarrassingly in the number of college graduates.

All of higher education must devote extra energy to helping students succeed. Our credibility, as well as the support we derive from our states, will evaporate if our exceptional academic programs become the reserve of the few.

Throughout higher education, we must own up to the fact that the graduation of our students provides the most tangible expression of the work we do, and it is our obligation to the students we serve.

The 21st-century marketplace demands increasingly high levels of skill and technical ability, and this marketplace will require almost every person to be prepared to change jobs a number of times.

While an associate’s degree can be expected to prepare students for a first job, many will of necessity seek additional education to further their economic advancement or to achieve greater personal fulfillment. That means earning a baccalaureate.

If President Obama really wants to prepare America for the continued economic vitality and creative innovation that will fuel our nation’s progress, then he should extend his higher education commitment to all of public higher education, to baccalaureate and graduate programs

Community colleges simply cannot do the job alone. The entire range of higher education must participate in expanding educational opportunities to all who are motivated by hard work and their dreams of a better life.

The calculus for the Obama administration is clear. He should ensure that community college graduates find smooth pathways into the work force or into institutions that allow them to continue their studies through the baccalaureate. He should remind public colleges and universities that they are in place because of the students they seek to educate.

And he should direct Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to hold higher education accountable for retaining and graduating students.

I cannot help but marvel at the degree to which American society has opened itself so far beyond what our Founding Fathers could ever have imagined. In fact, many of us — the middle and working classes, women, the many races that people America, and the immigrants who make our country their home — owe our personal and professional success to the vast democratization of higher education.

Our society and our culture are simply unthinkable outside of higher education’s transformative impact on generation after generation of newly empowered students.

OPPORTUNITY IS NOW

President Obama has a significant opportunity to focus our country on what it will take for America to remain at the forefront of the world’s economies. To do so will require increased investment in associate degree education as well as in baccalaureate and graduate education.

Public colleges and universities await an ambitious challenge from President Obama and a renewed commitment by his administration to invest in their mission.

After all, they graduate the overwhelming majority of American citizens: our artists, business people, health care professionals, lawyers, public servants, scientists, teachers and technicians.

Committing the United States to a “Brain Race” would be this president’s most lasting contribution to our national well-being, and its effects would ripple through America’s new century as surely as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal did through the last.