President Joe Biden’s pick for education secretary would like to see students in middle school through high school have more opportunities to explore career and technical education (CTE) programs to help inform them about potential occupations and postsecondary education choices.
Miguel Cardona, a technical high school graduate who is currently Connecticut’s education commissioner, also noted the important role community colleges will play in the country’s economic recovery by providing access to an affordable, quality education that leads to good-paying careers.
Senators on both sides of the aisle also emphasized the importance of CTE during Cardona’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday. The discussions at the hearing signal not only Cardona’s and the Biden administration’s priorities but also offer a glimpse of top-of-mind issues for members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
In media interviews leading to the confirmation hearing, Cardona has emphasized CTE and the role community colleges will play in the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery. In his testimony on Wednesday, he noted how the pandemic has affected all students, citing significant drops in enrollments at public two-year colleges.
“Fewer students started college this fall, and those declines were most striking at community colleges – institutions that have long served as entry points to higher education and economic mobility for so many,” he said.
Cardona – who over his career in Connecticut has served as a fourth-grade teacher, principal and assistant superintendent – listed how he would work to ensure all students have education opportunities, including developing “college and career pathways to good futures,” and improving college access by “strengthening this nation’s best-kept secret: community colleges.”
New committee leaders
The collegial hearing touched on a wide range of issues, with members of the committee asking Cardona about his views on student debt and loan forgiveness, accountability, racial inequities, rural education, education opportunities for students with disabilities, transgender issues (particularly in high school sports) and student safety, from protecting students amid the pandemic, to tackling bullying and sexual assaults.
The hearing was the first committee meeting headed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), who is the new committee chair. Serving as ranking member is Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina). The two previously worked together as leaders of the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and both hope to continue with their bipartisan work.
“Sen. Burr and I have had positive conversations about how this committee can continue its long history of working to address issues critical to the American people,” Murray said in her opening statement.
Burr, who encouraged Republican committee members to support Cardona’s nomination, noted in his opening statement that he does not support forgiveness of student loans. The Biden administration has extended a pause on student loan repayments during the pandemic, and some education groups would like lawmakers to erase at least portions of college loan debt for certain students. Burr said he would rather set repayment amounts based on what borrowers can reasonably afford and cap it at 10% of their discretionary income. The debt would be forgiven after 20 years. It’s a proposal Burr previously included in a bill.
Tapping CTE, dual enrollment
In discussing access to higher education, committee members noted the role of community colleges, not only in providing students with an affordable education (and little debt) that leads to good-paying, in-demand jobs, but also in their importance in kickstarting an economy unprecedently affected by the pandemic.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) noted how community colleges helped in the workforce and economic recovery after the previous recession that started in 2008. She also cited her proposed bill that would cover tuition at community colleges. Baldwin, who chairs the Senate CTE Caucus, said it is important to introduce CTE programs as early as middle school to broaden career opportunities that students could explore.
Cardona agreed and highlighted how Connecticut has advanced opportunities for high school students to take college-level courses at community colleges through programs such as dual enrollment. He cited other dual enrollment efforts across the country.
“We have to design our high schools to be able to provide those pathways for students to be successful, whether they go to a traditional four-year or a pathway that involves career and technical education training,” Cardona said.
He added that his son, a high school junior, recently enrolled in a community college course for credit through his high school. Cardona himself studied automotive technology at a technical high school in Connecticut.
Other committee members also expressed their support for CTE, including Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), who noted that he has introduced legislation to allow students to use Pell grants for certain short-term CTE programs. He added that Virginia’s FastForward program, which funds community colleges to offer short-term job training, has helped many students earn more and qualify for jobs with better benefits.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) added she would like to see more opportunities for adult learners that would include more earn-while-you-learn programs as well as wraparound services to retain them in those programs.
Several lawmakers also noted that the continued stigma associated with CTE jobs, even though they offer good-paying opportunities, remains a challenge.