Another White House community college summit

During a virtual meeting with community college leaders, Dr. Jill Biden emphasized the importance of community colleges to the U.S. economic recovery. (Screenshot of streamed event)

It’s been more than a decade, but the White House may soon host another community college summit.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden on Tuesday hinted at another White House summit on community colleges. The White House held its first community college summit in 2010 during the Obama administration. It was convened by Biden, who was second lady.

At the time, community colleges were an integral part of President Obama’s workforce development and economic recovery plan following the recession. The first summit was held to highlight community colleges’ role in developing America’s workforce and reaching the president’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

On Tuesday, Biden reiterated during a virtual conference with community college leaders that public two-year colleges again will play a pivotal role in rebuilding the U.S. economy, calling them “our most powerful engine of prosperity.”

“At our next White House summit, I can’t wait to lift the work that you are doing every day to make sure that that engine can transform lives and our nation’s economy,” she said at the virtual Community College National Legislative Summit. The Association of Community College Trustees sponsored the summit in cooperation with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

‘A better future for everyone’

The first lady, who teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, opened her remarks by noting the launch of a new community college in Erie, Pennsylvania, citing the workforce and economic opportunities it will create in its area.

“And that’s what community colleges are all about: A better future for everyone,” she said.

Biden is poised to keep community colleges in the spotlight, much like she did during the Obama administration, especially their service in preparing the nation’s workforce.

“Community colleges have always been about jobs. They’ve always been innovative institutions that meet students where they are, giving them the opportunity to grow their careers and support their families,” she said. “They’ve always met the needs of the people they serve, strengthening businesses and workforces.”

President Joe Biden’s plan includes offering free community college and training programs, support for students to help them complete, and investments in programs that prepare workers for future jobs, Biden said. She encouraged community college leaders to inform the administration what their students need to help them succeed.

“We need your ideas. Tell us what’s working, but just as importantly, tell us what’s not working,” she said. ‘Show us your innovative approaches. Help us spread your success to other institutions.”

Biden also said that community colleges are no longer “America’s best-kept secret.”

“The secret’s out now. It’s time for us to pick up the bullhorn and take the lead,” she added.

 A multi-pronged approach

White House and Education Department (ED) officials followed Biden with a few details of some of those efforts, though they noted that things are still in flux.

Carmel Martin, deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council for Economic Mobility at the White House, said the president’s postsecondary education agenda includes expanding various pathways through higher education – including associate degrees, certificates and registered apprenticeships – that led to good-paying jobs.

“We know that community colleges are the heart of those programs,” said Martin, who served as ED’s assistant secretary for policy and budget during the Obama administration. She noted that historically community colleges have been “under-resourced,” especially when compared to four-year institutions.

Martin added that the administration is tackling other challenges that tie to college enrollment, such as childcare, by seeking more tax credits, increased blocks, increased pay for childcare workers and providing more childcare services in rural areas.

The Biden administration also wants to “synergize” ED and Department of Labor (DOL) programs, which labor secretary nominee Marty Walsh emphasized last week at his Senate confirmation hearing. The president has a $25 billion plan to improve workforce development programs that would require partnerships among stakeholders such as colleges, high schools, unions, and business and industry.

Martin was asked whether the administration would consider another program similar to DOL’s successful Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program, which was developed in response to the previous economic recession. She said it was not “wedded to the structure” but could possibly use some of its more successful parts. She added the administration was open to ideas to strengthening such partnerships.

Michelle Asha Cooper, ED’s acting deputy assistant secretary for postsecondary education, added that the president plans to fully re-install the DACA program to help “Dreamers,” including allowing eligible students to tap federal student aid.

She also encouraged college leaders to report their use of their federal CARES Act funds as the department plans to disburse funding for the recently passed follow-up pandemic relief legislation.

Cooper didn’t directly address a question of whether the administration would aim to extend Pell Grant eligibility for certain high-quality, short-term programs. She said the plan was to double the value of the grant and automatically adjust it to inflation. Congressional Republicans, as well as some key Democrats and advocates such as AACC, would like to extend Pell eligibility to such short-term programs. However, there is resistance among some Democrats and think tanks, though some state initiatives have shown that such grants for short-term training help workers attain better-paying jobs.

Comments from Congress

Several House members who later spoke at the virtual meeting also noted the importance of broadband access, especially in rural areas, and the role of career and technical education (CTE) in expanding education and occupational opportunities for students. They also addressed reducing college costs and college debt.

Some lawmakers noted the continued stigma associated with CTE occupations, even though they offer family-sustaining wages and good benefits. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) relayed a story about a conversation he overheard years ago between several high school students discussing what careers are most critical in society. It’s the moment that determines the answer to that, Clyburn said. If your car breaks down, a mechanic is more vital than a lawyer. When there’s a water leak, a plumber is more important than a doctor.

He also encouraged unity to help students succeed. In light of Black History Month, Clyburn relayed a story about Thomas Edison. The New Jersey inventor developed the light bulb, but he couldn’t get it to stay on for long. He teamed with inventor Lewis Latimer, the son of former slaves, who invented carbon filament, making electric lighting practical and affordable.

“That’s what happens in our society when people get beyond their comfort zones and reach out to each other, put aside ethnic differences, gender differences, regional differences,” he said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.