Supporting the advocates

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden spoke Monday at the Community College National Legislative Summit in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of ACCT)

Dr. Jill Biden on Monday morning gave a pep talk to the nation’s community college trustees and presidents who are in Washington, D.C., this week to chat with lawmakers about the needs of their students and colleges.

The first lady said she hoped for more collaboration among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to put students’ interests first, and less competition like at a sporting event with opposing teams trying to score points with voters.

“Legislation becomes a football to keep away from the other side, and Americans get lost in the playbook,” Biden said at the annual Community College National Legislation Summit hosted by the Association of Community Colleges Trustees in collaboration with the American Association of Community Colleges.

But she did sound a bit like a coach rallying her team as community college advocates would later visit with their representatives on Capitol Hill (though many would still do so virtually).

Community colleges and their students have had their ups and downs over the past few years, with many of the challenges amplified by the pandemic. The colleges are enduring massive enrollment drops and their students continue to face challenges that can impede their education, such as childcare, and housing and food insecurity, transportation issues and more.

But efforts at the federal level, such as emergency federal funding funneled to help schools and students, are making a difference, Biden said. And the infrastructure legislation recently signed into law will create millions of jobs that will require a skilled workforce, she said.

Setback and struggles

Still, the Biden administration has had to make compromises, such as dropping the plan for free community college from the president’s Build Back Better legislative package. The first lady said she was disappointed by that.

“We’ve seen how entire towns can be transformed when community colleges and private companies work together to train students for jobs that are desperately needed, with skills like manufacturing or modernizing our electrical grid,” she said.

Biden used her own experience as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College to illustrate the struggles of many community college students. She said that she loaned a textbook to one of her students who couldn’t afford to buy it until she received her paycheck. Biden also noted that students facing challenges such as child care can eventually lead to them dropping out.

“We all know that affordable child care and universal pre-school would profoundly change people’s lives,” Biden said. “Build Back Better is not just a piece of legislation, and it’s certainly not a football to pass or pivot.”

Personal stories

Biden encouraged the community college leaders to tell the stories of their students to lawmakers.

“This is how we move forward, step by step,” she said. “We take the hard-won victories, and we keep pushing for the change we need. … We will win the progress that our students deserve.”

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona later continued with that message of support, noting that two-year colleges are engines of economic growth and social mobility.

“Community colleges are one of the nation’s best treasures,” he said. “People are recognizing that. And now is the time that we amplify that message.”

He continued: “While some colleges may prioritize chasing each other’s college rankings and buoying affluent students from elite high schools, community colleges are doing real work to build pathways to good jobs and life-long careers for all.”

Cardona encouraged the advocates to share with lawmakers how federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) money, authorized by the American Rescue Plan, has helped students. He noted two Mississippi community colleges that used their HEERF funds to offer up to 12 credits of free summer courses, and how New Jersey’s Bergen Community College used its allotment to subsidize on-campus child care.

Related article: HEERF today, gone tomorrow

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.