Jill Biden Can Spur Transformation at Community Colleges

In her new role, the longtime educator can both encourage and challenge two-year institutions to play a key role in skilling up workers, David Soo writes.

December 22, 2020
 
 
David Soo
Jill Biden at Austin Community College

As a U.S. Department of Education staffer on the higher education innovation policy beat, I accompanied then-Second Lady Jill Biden in March 2015 to South by Southwest in Austin, Tex. (Editors’ note: Inside Higher Ed does not use the honorific “Dr.” to refer to individuals with nonmedical doctorates, including Ph.D.s or Ed.D.s, because so many people in higher education have such degrees.)

As part of the trip, we left the sprawling conference and visited the campus of Austin Community College to see its technology-enabled teaching infrastructure.

Faculty and students there talked passionately about the transformative power of education and the technology that enabled more efficient and effective teaching. The students we met and the impact of education on their life trajectories were personal to Biden -- a lifelong educator and community college professor herself -- and remained the topic of conversation over meals and on the plane ride back to Andrews Air Force Base. In fact, one of the students we met that day, Jenny Bragdon (pictured), would be her guest to the following State of the Union.

What Biden brought to the trip was not only an understanding of the lived experience of the community college students and faculty members, but her authentic voice to every conversation, along with the spotlight and imprimatur of the federal government, to the issues about which she cared deeply.

As we head into 2021 and a new presidential administration, we find ourselves at a critical moment for community colleges and technological innovation, a moment at which we sorely need the leadership of someone with the new first lady’s credibility, empathy and voice.

In the midst of unprecedented upheaval, learners and workers need degrees to launch or relaunch a career; new skills to switch careers at multiple points throughout their lives; and the helping hand of an adviser, mentor or career navigator. These are all things at which community colleges have excelled.

Yet, with a rapidly changing world, where the half-life of skills is shrinking and in which retraining stints will be critical for so many occupations, community colleges will need to dramatically innovate to keep up and continue to shrink equity gaps. Students accustomed to personalized virtual shopping, entertainment and social connections will expect their community colleges to offer the right blend of virtual, self-paced and human connections to sustain them through their learning and development.

This is where Jill Biden has the potential to be truly transformative. She can be a leader in the White House who lovingly challenges and encourages community colleges, as both colleague and leader, to continue boldly innovating. Biden can wield a tremendous amount of power by calling on community colleges to meet this moment, encouraging them to partner with one another and new technology, and educational providers to enhance what they do best.

And she can use her influence within the administration to push for the necessary policy changes and real financial supports to enable this change. There is much to be done to undo the damage of the outgoing administration -- and yet there is also potential to build in real spaces for innovation, whether innovation grants to build lifelong career navigation tools or student data and research infrastructure; an education equivalent to DARPA; or responsible regulatory flexibility enabling new pedagogical approaches or rapid reskilling programs.

While there is often an impulse to protect students from predatory behaviors disguised as innovation, a lack of bold new thinking can reify existing inequities that we must move beyond if we are to provide students real opportunity.

As the president-elect’s partner, Biden is uniquely positioned to drive visionary and urgently needed change to enable the transformation of lives through education. Let’s make sure we all redouble our efforts to shape and drive the changes we know are needed, providing Biden with a strong cadre of expertise, guidance and support, each of us doing what we can from our current spheres -- whether as educators, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs or philanthropists -- fostering renewed hope and opportunity in a nation starved for both.

Bio

David Soo is chief of staff at Jobs for the Future.

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