A ‘Forceful Voice’ for Community Colleges

Jill Biden, the first lady, returned to the classroom this fall as a community college professor. Community college leaders see the move as emblematic of a new national moment for their institutions. 

September 21, 2021
 
Carolyn Kaster/AFP/Getty Images

Jill Biden returned to in-person teaching at Northern Virginia Community College this fall. The first lady, an English and writing professor, taught online last semester and spoke widely and publicly about her eagerness to come back to the classroom.

“I hope you’re as excited as I am for those clean whiteboards, the freshly waxed floors and, best of all, the bright faces of our students -- in person,” Biden said in a speech at Waipahu High School near Honolulu in late July.

With her return to the classroom, Biden is the first in her role to hold a full-time job alongside her White House responsibilities. Community college leaders and educators widely celebrated the move as yet another sign the first lady will be an advocate for their institutions in the highest echelons of government. Many supporters of community colleges also see Biden's visibility and advocacy as a part of a broader national spotlight moment for community colleges at a time when they are getting renewed attention for offering affordable options for higher education and job training and opening new paths to social mobility.

Biden is also credited for drawing support for community colleges among congressional lawmakers.

“I don’t think it’s so much a sea change in terms of what we do but how aware people are of what we do,” said Colorado Community College System chancellor Joe Garcia. “We know that community colleges are a great resource for a lot of people, but we are often overlooked as a high-quality, affordable and accessible option, and I think anything we can do nationally to raise more awareness about community colleges is great, and certainly Dr. Biden helps do that.”

Mark T. Brainard, president of Delaware Technical Community College, where Biden began her college teaching career in 1993, described President Joe Biden and the first lady as “lifelong advocates” for community colleges.

“To have that pulpit and to be such an articulate and forceful voice in advocating for community colleges and our students can’t be dismissed,” he said. “It’s definitely driving not just the attention but the positive attention that community colleges are receiving today.”

Jill Biden has a long history of working in and promoting community colleges. She did her doctoral dissertation at the University of Delaware on student retention at Delaware Technical Community College. She started teaching at Northern Virginia Community College in 2009, during her husband’s vice presidency, and she hosted the first White House Summit on Community Colleges with President Barack Obama the following year.

“Community colleges are uniquely American -- places where anyone who walks through the door is one step closer to realizing the American dream,” she said in her remarks at the summit.

As for college faculty members across the country, teaching will be different for Biden this academic year. She will have to wear a mask in the classroom this semester and take other safety precautions due to the pandemic. Unlike her colleagues, she will commute to the campus from the White House, accompanied by a U.S. Secret Service motorcade.

Claudia Schrader, president of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, N.Y., is hopeful Biden’s decision to teach in person will help community colleges make a comeback after a difficult year and signal “that we’re making more strides in our recovery.”

“Her returning to the classroom means that we’re in recovery mode and community colleges will be able to bounce back,” Schrader said.

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Community college students in particular experienced high job losses or reduced wages related to the pandemic, and many dropped out as a result. Others who remained in college struggled with childcare or work responsibilities, tended to family members sick with COVID-19 or coped with their deaths, all while dealing with the challenges of remote learning. Enrollment at community colleges plummeted by about 10 percent on average from fall 2019 to fall 2020, with a similar plunge in spring 2021, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Most community colleges continue to experience enrollment declines this fall.

Kingsborough was among the colleges that lost students. More than half of its students are eligible for federal financial aid through Pell Grants. Total enrollment for full-time and part-time Kingsborough students dropped from 15,433 in fall 2019 to 15,284 in fall 2020. Schrader said enrollment this semester fell at least another 4 percent compared to last fall.

She believes Biden’s presence in the national spotlight can inspire more high school students to consider two-year institutions as an option and perhaps reach students who hadn’t considered college at all.

Community colleges more broadly seem to be shedding some of the stigma of being considered by some as second-rate institutions and are commanding more respect from lawmakers as vehicles of economic mobility and providers of workforce training, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. She credits Biden’s advocacy in part but noted that an ongoing policy conversation about student loan debt also brought attention to community colleges as low-cost pathways to universities and job training.

“There’s a recognition for who we serve and how we serve them and what that means for America’s middle class,” she said. “Community college is now being looked at as opportunity rather than as the second choice, as it were.”

Brainard noted that community colleges tend to draw extra attention from business leaders and lawmakers “at any time of economic disruption or uncertainty,” and a pandemic certainly qualifies.

Community colleges are also at the center of current national policy discussions. President Biden included two years of free community college in his American Families Plan in April, and the proposal remains a key piece of the Build Back Better Act, a $3.5 trillion piece of legislation currently being hammered out in Congress.

Jill Biden has previously been an outspoken advocate of tuition-free college but has recently been criticized by some proponents for being quiet on the issue as of late, according to Politico.

Some believe Biden’s recent silence is a sign that the administration is willing to give up on the tuition-free college plan as the legislation gets increasingly bogged down in politics in Congress.

Before a visit last week to the Des Moines Area Community College, where she promoted the Build Back Better plan, Biden had not attended any free community college promotion events since May, Politico reported. But plans are in the works for her to resume traveling to community colleges for events in coming weeks, including to Michigan this week with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, the news outlet reported.

“The best use of the First Lady’s time is to make the public case for community college, which is what she’s been doing for the last 12 years,” her spokesperson Michael LaRosa said in a statement, Politico reported. “In fact, her work raising awareness about America’s best kept secret is a big reason why free community college is in the Build Back Better legislative package today.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers and philanthropists have recently heaped praise -- and cash -- on community colleges. Higher education institutions, including community colleges, have received about $69 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds since the pandemic began, which allowed community colleges to offer all kinds of financial help to students, such as free laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots and emergency grants, and enabled some colleges to forgive thousands of dollars in student debts to their institutions.

Brainard said the relief funds given to his college, a total of $62.6 million, not only helped students weather the crisis but allowed administrators to make new investments in technology that will be “game changers” going forward. The college now has the infrastructure for hybrid education in classes, labs and workforce training programs.

“Those investments will pay off for many, many years to come,” he said.

In addition to the federal funds, some community colleges also benefited from a recent spate of philanthropic largess that was once rare for two-year institutions. Some received record-breaking donations from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who doled out billions of dollars to historically underresourced two- and four-year colleges that serve large numbers of first-generation college students and those from low-income families. For example, Amarillo College in Texas received $15 million, the largest donation in its history.

Geoff Green, president of the Network for California Community Colleges Foundations and CEO of the Santa Barbara City College Foundation, said gifts like Scott’s indicate the continuation of a trend of philanthropists realizing their “dollars go further at a community college” in serving the most marginalized students.

The Santa Barbara City College Foundation, which received $20 million from Scott, is the wealthiest community college foundation in the state, with over $90 million in assets, but “if you lay that alongside any four-year institution, even a small four-year institution, that doesn’t seem like a large asset base,” Green noted.

Nonetheless, he said donors “recognized the challenge” posed by the pandemic. He noted that the Great Recession of 2007-08, another moment of crisis, yielded a “massive spike” in community college enrollment and a blossoming of the movement to make community college tuition-free.

“Every time I hear a story about Jill Biden doing anything with community colleges, it makes me happy, certainly,” Green said. “Because I know that that will get the attention of folks who may or may not have been watching” and encourage alumni giving to community colleges.

College faculty members appreciate Biden for representing them in other ways. They see their own mixed emotions, their excitement and anxieties about teaching during the pandemic reflected in Biden’s transition back to in-person teaching.

Biden has spoken publicly about how she learned to use online tools and changed her instruction strategies to teach students during the pandemic, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, a labor union whose membership includes about 150,000 higher education instructors, including Biden. She believes Biden’s experiences during the pandemic make her not only relatable to educators but an ideal policy advocate for them with both the president and Secretary Cardona.

“She is experiencing what educators all over this country are experiencing,” Pringle said. “And for her to be able to experience and articulate that not only elevates the profession but puts a face that everyone knows, a real person who is having those experiences, in a position to be able to talk about it from her position of power.”

Janet Eber, chair of the English department at County College of Morris in New Jersey for almost 40 years, said she also hopes Biden’s return to the classroom raises the profile of English as a discipline at community colleges and signals the importance of the liberal arts. Community college leaders have shifted some of their resources and attention to workforce development to meet local labor demands and help spur economic development and pandemic recovery, she said.

While Eber believes job training is important, “the world still needs artists, it needs musicians, it needs those professions that feed the mind and the soul, and sometimes students don’t have the money to go anyplace else,” she said. To her, Biden’s work sends that message.

“Teaching is a way of life,” she said. “It never leaves you. If you’re really a teacher, you get it the first day you walk into a classroom and it stays with you the rest of your life. It just does. And that she’s gone back at this point in her life tells me she sees it the same way.”

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