A long hearing, a lot of topics

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona testified remotely on Thursday before the House Education and Labor Committee. (Screenshot of streamed event)

A House hearing Thursday on the education priorities of the Biden administration focused mainly on K-12 and student loan repayment issues. Still, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona did field a few questions about community colleges and career and technical education (CTE).

The four-and-a-half-hour hearing covered a wide array of topics, including critical race theory, programs that serve students with disabilities, student loan forgiveness, gender identity in sports, protection from predatory for-profit colleges, and reporting requirements on colleges and universities accepting large gifts and contracts from other countries, especially China.

But several members of the House Education and Labor Committee also asked Cardona about ensuring students have options to explore CTE that can lead to good-paying jobs, and about the Education Department’s (ED) efforts to encourage disengaged students to return to college.

The secretary noted President Joe Biden’s budget plan for fiscal year 2022 and other proposals — in particular the American Jobs Plan, the American Families Plan and the American Rescue Plan — include funding to help do that. Many students cannot return to college because of job and family obligations, Cardona said. He recalled a recent discussion with a middle-aged Michigan college student who wanted to return to college, but the cost of books was prohibitive.

“In the Family Plan, the funds for increasing Pell can help with some of those factors,” Cardona said, referring to proposed increases to the maximum Pell Grant award in the budget and proposed plans.

He also cited the $40 billion to higher education through the American Rescue Plan, with at least half going to students who can use the funds to cover some of those expenses.

“There are efforts underway to make sure we are getting those numbers back up,” Cardona said of college enrollments, which have dived during the pandemic, especially among community colleges. “Those efforts really need to be targeted toward those students that we lost. And we know it is disproportionately Black and brown students.”

Seamless CTE

As several committee members emphasized the need to promote CTE as an education path, Cardona agreed that many Americans have a dated view of CTE, while employers are begging for skilled employees.

Cardona, who studied automotive trade at a technical high school, said a change is needed in the “culture” and narrative around CTE.

“It has very old-school mentality. We have to change that,” he said.

Cardona added that it will require highlighting CTE programs to the public as well as creating a seamless system that promotes CTE in K-12, community college, four-year institutions and among business and industry — something he and U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh have noted in previous congressional hearings this year.

“Our agency has been focusing on that since day one. We are going to continue to focus on that, and we are not going to get distracted because that is what our students need,” Cardona said.

Accountability for all colleges

Over the past few weeks, some congressional Republicans have questioned the president’s plan to provide two years of free community college to first-time students and those wishing to reskill.

At Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) insinuated that the department doesn’t hold other higher education institutions, especially community colleges, to the same outcome standards that they place on for-profits colleges. While several lawmakers noted unscrupulous for-profit colleges have led to massive student loan debt for some students, Foxx — who was president of Mayland Community College in North Carolina from 1987 until she entered into politics in 1994 — took aim at community colleges, citing low graduation rates, especially in light of Biden’s plan to significantly increase funding for those colleges.

“While just one in four community college students graduates in four years, your department has proposed giving these institutions hundreds of billions of dollars without giving any assurances to taxpayers that such schools will improve student outcomes, all the while punishing schools graduating twice as many of their students simply because they are classified as for-profits or tax-paying institutions,” she said to Cardona. “Instead of penalizing institutions based on their tax status, I think it’s time we judge the quality of an institution by the ability to serve its students.”

Cardona said ED would hold all institutions receiving federal funding accountable for student outcomes, but he observed that community colleges are open access and many of the students they serve are not prepared for college-level work, are returning to college after a long absence and face other challenges that traditional-age four-year college students don’t.

“Community colleges provide a very wide net for people that probably would not consider college. But those community colleges are a great place for them to start,” Cardona said. “We have to do better with graduation rates, but I also want to applaud their efforts to bring students in that would not ever be considered in some other institutions.”

Foxx acknowledged the challenges and opportunities presented at community colleges: “I know. I spent seven years as the president of one.”

A few words on Kvaal

Foxx also expressed concerns that a key senator is holding up the nomination of James Kvaal as education under secretary. The Washington Post reported this week that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) won’t give her OK for Kvaal unless the department agrees to certain commitments on student loan reforms. Kvaal testified before the Senate education committee in mid-April.

Cardona said he is awaiting for Kvaal to join ED.

“We are eager to have a full team so we can do what we were hired to do, which is serve our students, both in K-12 and higher education,” he said.

On rural schools

During the hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York) noted that students in rural communities have higher graduation rates than students from other areas, yet they are less likely to enroll in postsecondary education. Those who do enroll often face unique barriers that make them more likely to drop out, she said.

“Addressing this attainment gap will go a long way in unleashing the untapped economic potential of rural America,” she said.

The final appropriations bill for the current fiscal year included $10 million for grants to support efforts to improve rates of postsecondary enrollment and completion among rural students. But ED has yet to publish a notice inviting applications for the Success for Rural Students and Communities Act, according to Stefanik. Cardona said that he would ask his staff to provide her an update.

About the Author

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