In case you weren’t aware, April is National Community College Awareness Month. And never have community colleges played such an important part in helping individuals of diverse ages and backgrounds realize their American Dream.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, its member institutions serve 45% of all college students and 41% of all first-time freshmen. However, that’s only part of the story.

Over half of all African American college students attend a community college. Representation among Hispanic and Native American college students is even higher. And over one-third of students are the first generation in their family to attend college.

Not surprisingly, community college students represent a wide range of ages, the average student being 29 years old.

Community college students are also a hardworking bunch. Well over half of all full-time community college students are employed at least part time, and nearly 75% of all part-time students hold down some form of employment.

In short, America’s community colleges serve students who are committed to a better life for themselves and their families, and are willing to work hard to achieve it.

Perhaps most importantly, this group of students are at the vanguard of a drive to upgrade their skills and remain competitive in a globalized workforce.

We also know that these students face greater challenges to graduation than most other college students. Nearly half fail to return for their second year of education.

The reasons are many.

In addition to attending to their studies, these students all have jobs to hold down. Seventeen percent are single parents. So, for these students, life has a way of intruding on their best intentions.

Many come to community college socially and academically unprepared, yet are committed to success. As a result, first-year experience courses play a particularly important role in helping these students succeed and matriculate through their college experience.

Our collective future depends, to a large extent, on our ability to teach all students to adapt, compete and thrive in a highly competitive global economy. The role of community colleges in reaching that goal has never been more important.