Michael Rice is a statistical failure.

When he was 17, he enrolled in community college and was doing well in school. Soon after, his girlfriend found out she was pregnant, and while the couple didn't marry, Rice knew he needed a full-time job. He left school and started a career in banking. But in 2010, at the age of 27, Rice was laid off.

So he returned to where it all began: Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis.

Rice shared his story with Kirsten White, policy director for Jill Biden, when she visited Ivy Tech from the White House, and it earned him an invitation to a convention presented by President Barack Obama in 2010 regarding the role of community colleges.

"He thought it was a joke," Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech, said to those in attendance in the living room of Robert and Jan Dilenschneider in Darien on Oct. 4.

Snyder said he accompanied Rice to the conference in 2010, where they were split up into groups to discuss the role of community colleges.

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Rice was in a group with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. On the flight home, they saw Duncan again. So Snyder approached him.

"I went up to him and said `Tom Snyder. Michael Rice was in your group,' and he said `I remember Michael. He's going to have my job someday,'" Snyder said.

Today Rice is an honors student at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and this semester he's interning in the Dominican Republic.

"He's a statistical failure, but he's a success in what we're trying to do," Snyder said of the important role that community colleges play in today's society.

Snyder explained that Indiana is at the bottom of college attainment, so one of his goals when he became president in 2007 was to find out why.

"We said, `OK, what's a way to fix that?' And a way to fix that is to make sure that people understand where community colleges can go and what we can do. (Since 2007) I think we've made a little bit of progress as a state, and we've certainly made progress as a nation," Snyder said.

Robert Dilenschneider, who hosted the reception for Snyder in honor of Snyder's new book, "The Community College: Career Track," believes community colleges are of utmost importance.

"We think community colleges are very important to the future of the country and the world," Dilenschneider, founder and principal of the Dilenschneider Group, a public relations firm with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, said. "If we're going to return the U.S. to the prominence it deserves, we need people coming out of community colleges. It's what holds the fabric of the middle class together."

Snyder wondered why more students weren't enrolling in college, and his book focuses on solutions to low enrollment.

"You've got 34 percent free- and reduced-price (lunch) kids in the state," Snyder said, referring to families who need assistance. "That means that 34 percent of the children in K-12 in Connecticut have family incomes of $42,000 or less a year. On the other side, University of Connecticut tuition is $22,000 a year. So what it really means is the sticker price for UConn is $88,000, which means if you actually buy books and beer and pizza, it's over $100,000."

Snyder explained that given those numbers, 34 percent of Connecticut families would have to save or borrow $80,000 per child in order to send them to UConn, "or any of the other residential four-year schools."

"The traditional college experience is out of reach for one-third of Connecticut families," Snyder said. "How do you fix this problem? You fix it by going to community college."

With the undeniable rising education costs, Norwalk Community College President David Levinson believes more and more people are taking advantage of community colleges.

"Community colleges are a phenomenal resource that more and more people are using," he said. "I think as an institution we're becoming more and more prominent."

Dilenschneider said he believes Darien is lucky to have Norwalk Community College nearby.

"Community colleges train young people and retrain older people," he said. "You don't have to work on Wall Street or become a lawyer to be successful in life."

Snyder concluded his speech by mentioning a Georgetown economist who said that the recovery since the peak of the recession has all been bachelor's degrees and associate's degrees or some college classes.

"Those with credentials from only high school or less have continued to lose jobs as we speak," Snyder said. "And this is a 20-year trend. If you have only a high school credential, your chances are not there.

"Everybody understands that they need an education, but the only way they're going to get that education is for somebody to convince that family that they actually can go. Our goal is to say you can go to school, college is for everybody. It may not be four years, it may not be two years, it may just be a certificate, but only having a high school diploma means nothing in the country anymore."

mdavis@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4407; http://www.twitter.com/megdariennews