• August 28, 2015

Community Colleges: Our Work Has Just Begun

I have been a teacher for almost three decades and a community-college instructor for the past 16 years. Last spring, President Obama asked me to increase awareness about one of the best-kept secrets of higher education: the very sizable and valuable contribution of community colleges. Since then I have been visiting colleges around the country and reporting back to the president about their challenges, innovations, and ideas. This issue is a priority for the Obama-Biden administration. We are committed to making community colleges better and more accessible to students across this nation.

The passage of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 was a substantial victory for community colleges. The final legislation does not contain everything our administration had proposed, but it does include one of the most significant new federal investments in higher education, and in community colleges, since the GI Bill was introduced, over 60 years ago.

Pell Grants had been threatened with a 60-percent funding decrease, but we stabilized the Pell program and ensured that such grants would increase with inflation. The Pell Grant victory will put money in the pockets of millions of full- and part-time community-college students, helping them pay for tuition, books, supplies, and living expenses. This increase in financial aid is coupled with the recently expanded Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides students a tax credit of up to $2,500 per year for up to four years to offset higher-education expenses, including a partial credit for those who owe no taxes. It also sets up income-based repayment of student loans, capping loan repayments at rates based on income and family size. As a lifelong teacher, I am particularly pleased that income-based repayment helps those who choose public-service careers. Graduates who work as teachers, nurses, or in other public-service professions—and those who serve in the military—can have their loans forgiven after 10 years.

The reconciliation bill also sets aside $2-billion ($500-million per year over four years) to develop and improve educational and training programs at community colleges. Throughout the nation, community colleges will receive funds to help them serve students more effectively, and to help form partnerships with regional industry clusters so that graduates will be prepared to excel in the local work force.

This administration's commitment to community colleges is a long-term one. The president has asked me to convene a national summit on community colleges in the fall. We will bring college presidents, instructors, and advocates together with business leaders and other stakeholders to share best practices and successful models for helping students gain the knowledge, training, certificates, and degrees needed to succeed. This will be a working summit, a setting where we can shine a spotlight on community colleges, highlight their utility to families and communities across the nation, nurture more collaboration, and generate additional policy ideas and goals for student success. As a community-college instructor, I am thrilled to be leading this summit and truly pleased to have the support of the administration.

Over the past 16 years, I have seen firsthand the power of community colleges to change lives. And that is, in large part, why I never really considered the possibility of not teaching at a community college after we moved to Washington last year. Since then I have been privileged to teach students from more than 22 countries.

As an English teacher, I frequently use journals and exercises in our school's learning lab as a tool for my students to develop their writing and composition skills. One exercise that is always productive is to encourage my students to write about their core beliefs as inspired by National Public Radio's This I Believe program. In these sessions, students listen to radio segments as examples—and then I encourage them to write about their own core beliefs. I am constantly moved and humbled by the experiences my students share in this exercise and in their journals about their dreams, challenges, and values.

Each one of them has a story to tell—stories about dedication and sacrifice.

Every day, I see my students work hard to overcome obstacles just to be in the classroom. Many of them work full time, have aging parents in need of care and attention, or are parents themselves. Often they contend with difficult economic realities. They are eager to learn, and many of them are the first members of their families to attend college. They persevere because they understand that getting an education will change their lives for the better. It will improve their job prospects and enrich their understanding of the world around them.

Community colleges can also serve as a gateway from a high-school diploma to a baccalaureate degree. They offer an affordable option for middle-class high-school students who want to attend a four-year college but cannot afford the tuition. The numbers tell the story: The average cost of tuition at a private four-year university is over $26,000 for the current academic year. At public four-year universities, the average is $7,000. Community-college tuition averages $2,500, presenting a far more affordable way to complete the first two years of a college education, especially when the credits earned on a community-college campus can often be transferred directly into four-year programs. It is not a coincidence that community colleges educate over 40 percent of all postsecondary students nationally.

For laid-off workers, community colleges offer job-certification programs that teach new skills and professions. Most people would be surprised to look at the catalog of an average community college today—they would find course work in a range of emerging health-care industries, training in cutting-edge technologies, offerings in architecture and green-building techniques, and classes in highly marketable job fields. For an immigrant or first-generation American, community college is often the place to begin a postsecondary education.

All of us have the opportunity to match the dedication of community-college students with a renewed commitment to ensuring their success. By working together, we can maximize the return on the new federal investment in students through Pell Grants, and in community colleges themselves, by modernizing the way classes are offered, ensuring easy transfer to four-year schools, and supporting other strategies for student success.

We know that education is the key to unlocking human potential. And we know that today, on community-college campuses across this country, millions of students are eager to build a more secure future for themselves, their families, and our country. We cannot—and we will not—let them down. As a member of the education community, I ask for your continued partnership in the months and years ahead as we continue to build support for community colleges and work to improve their offerings and outcomes. This is the moment for community colleges. Our work has just begun.

Jill Biden, a lifelong educator with a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware, teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College. She is the wife of Vice President Joe Biden.


1. jffoster - April 16, 2010 at 06:54 am

Thank you Mrs. Biden,

Just so long as "encouraging" students to write about their own "core beliefs" doesn't turn into preassuring or requiring them to write about them. There is a tendency to (try to) turn Community College into Grades 13 and 14 of High School. I trust you all will resist that.

It might be worth taking a look at what Stanley Fish wrote about "best practices" a few years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

2. htinberg - April 16, 2010 at 08:50 am

I wish to add my thanks to you, Mrs. Biden, for helping to bring attention to the remarkable work done by community college faculty, staff, and students. You lead by example.

The challenges facing public community colleges are indeed enormous: the reduction of public investment in higher education, the lure of private funding to make up for the seeming public divestiture in higher ed, and the powerful pull toward reliance on purely contingent or part-time faculty and staff.

How ironic that as enrollment in public community colleges has reached an historic high, public community colleges find themselves cutting corners whereever possible and, increasing the irony, turning toward for profit corporations to make ends meet.

I welcome the administration's long-term commitment to assist public community colleges in their admirable mission to bring 21st century skills to all.

Howard Tinberg
Professor of English
Bristol Community College
Fall River, MA

3. collegeloanconsultan - April 16, 2010 at 10:45 am

The numbers do tell the story: As a result of the Health Care
and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, the Department of Education was forced to revise their Pell grant calculations for the 2010-2011 school year, to comply with the new qualifications guidelines. The amount of funding did not change from their January schedules. This has resulted in extending new awards to students that would not have received them, but also in lowering awards for students whose cost of attendance is less than $5,550- which describes most community college students. For next year at least, most Pell students who attend community colleges will receive lower awards than the amounts planned a couple of months ago.

4. 22213708 - April 16, 2010 at 11:48 am

Show me the money. It just never seems to trickle down to rural community colleges.

5. getwell - April 16, 2010 at 11:50 am


Thanks for detailing the hidden "fine print." The current administration (and spouses) continue their attempts to mesmorize "we the people" with lofty rhetoric...yet conveniently fail to mention the hidden clauses and fine print, which usually result in higher taxes and more fed govt control.

6. rutgersaaup - April 16, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Best practices should include staffing colleges and univesities with full-time faculty with appropriate salaries and benefits, rather than with part-time / adjunct faculty who must divide their attention between multiple appointments, as is currently the unfortunate rule. Student access includes being taught by those who have been provided adequate resources with which to perform as well as institutional commitment in exchange for the dedication these instructors bring to their classes.

7. mmlynch - April 16, 2010 at 12:35 pm

As an instructor at a community college, parent, and currently the president of New Faculty Majority, a new national advocacy organization for adjunct and contingent faculty, I am heartened to learn that the summit will bring “college presidents, instructors, and advocates together with business leaders and other stakeholders.” I would respectfully request that Dr. Biden and the summit planners place the appalling working conditions of 70% of community college faculty nationwide high on the summit agenda and ensure that adjunct and contingent faculty voices have a prominent place at the table. Planners and participants alike must make a real commitment to resolving this well-documented problem once and for all: decades old, it is a major factor in many of the challenges that currently confront higher education. Community colleges (and indeed all institutions of higher education) must provide authentic institutional support to all of their faculty members in the form of full inclusion in institutional governance and curriculum development; equity in compensation, benefits, and access to job security, due process, professional development and evaluation; and all of the rights to which their responsibilities as educators entitle them. To ignore this issue is to perpetuate exploitation and to show real disregard for educators and students alike.

Maria Maisto, President, New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity

8. wilkenslibrary - April 16, 2010 at 03:20 pm

Like several of the above posters, I hope that the summit will focus attention on the fact that community college faculty these days are overwhelmingly not tenured or tenure-track. At my institution, there are fewer than 70 full-time faculty and more than 250 contingent faculty. When students come looking for us for extra help, they discover that we do not have office hours. Indeed, in many cases, we do not even have offices. As research shows, and as many have noted, teachers' working conditions=students' learning conditions. Until we recognize this, until we include contingent faculty's working conditions as an essential part of the conversation, until we include contingent faculty at the table, we will make minimal progress towards our goal of providing the best possible education for our students.

Betsy Smith, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor of ESL
Cape Cod Community College

9. sophox - April 16, 2010 at 04:36 pm

As a CC instructor for 18 years, I know that CCs do not solve all problems, and in fact they may create some.

For one thing, many students at CC do not really want to be there. They have as little interest in knowledge as they did while in HS. So a lot of classtime is wasted on babysitting chores, and a lot of instructor effort is wasted on students who have no interest in succeeding. Yes, there are plenty of students who want to succeed. I speak only of the huge numbers who do not.

Pell Grants and other aid packages should be more strongly connected to grades. Like, a B average and no grade lower than a C. Fail that, and you lose the money. Period.

Another problem is that CC is picking up way too much remedial slack. This sends the message back to K-12 that it's okay for students to waste 4 years in HS. CC will fix 'em up.

I have a student now who graduated HS with a 3.7 average (out of 4.0) but placed into pre-algebra when she arrived at CC 3 months later, and barely managed to earn a C- in it. This is an 8-th grade course!

Someone has done this kid a disservice. And I don't think she helped herself any, either. Certainly the circumstance is appalling. Nor is it unique.

I'd like the conference to raise issues like these.

10. arrive2__net - April 16, 2010 at 06:15 pm

I think it is a tribute to the Obama Administration that they see and prioritize the importance and efficiency of community colleges and are willing to go to bat to get funding to support and facilitate community colleges. When I was an adjunct I used to tell my students that I thought they were smart to choose to go to community college because they could get their first two years of college for less, and still do just as well in the last two years. I still think that's true today. Community colleges are usually good places to be, smaller, with more personal attention and small class sizes. I think that is part of their success.

Bernard Schuster

11. vcvaile - April 16, 2010 at 08:37 pm

How many adjunct faculty teaching at community colleges will be among the "college presidents, instructors, and advocates together with business leaders and other stakeholders" participating in the summit? Since we are the majority that teaches most of the classes, I certainly hope our number represented by more than a few token adjuncts.

12. hoppingmadjunct - April 17, 2010 at 02:24 pm

Mrs. Biden's enthusiasm is commendable, but she must be either tenured or one of those faculty for whom, in the words of AFT's recent report on those who teach almost half the undergraduate courses nationwide, at c.c.s and elsewhere, "compensation is not a major expectation."

That relegates a good chunk of the profession to the level of a hobby. Before sinking more money into a system that hasn't yet figured out how it can provide equivalent pay, job security, benefits, and other working conditions to teachers who are often teaching different sections of the same course, the summit needs to consider ways to achieve equity. It's teacher working conditions -- not government funding, administrators, support services, food courts, or abstruse new ideas -- that are student working conditions, and teacher working conditions need fixing first.

13. mosmun - April 19, 2010 at 10:27 am

I understand that faculty have huge loads to endure; however, please don't forget about the student service (student affairs) individuals that are doing more work without any hope of hiring additional help or additional compensation. We are required to do more for less and it is a very stressful situation and our students suffer in the end.

Dr. Biden, please don't forget about us!!

14. jifeldman - April 19, 2010 at 01:35 pm

Dr. Biden,

Thank you for your commitment to higher education and your support of efforts to not make college studies not only more affordable and accessible but of greater value and benefit for students. The quality of student learning and outcomes has largely gone unquestioned and unexamined throughout the history of higher ed in this country. Gratefully, this has begun to change in recent years with calls for greater accountability coming from the public and private sector, as well as government officials and agencies on all levels. As encouraging as this is, I believe we are a long way from knowing what our students are actually learning as a result of their education. As I wrote in the introduction to a book I recently authored, The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching (a professional development text for postsecondary educators), "the emperor has no clothes". In many regards, we have been operating under old assumptions about the quality of higher education in our country. What I argued for in the book and continue to do is that faculty hiring and professional development practices should give as much -if not more -attention to teaching ability as it does to the subject matter expertise of instructors. Community colleges do much more so than large 4-year instutions, particularly research universities. However, even in many community colleges, it is my observation and experience that a significant number of classroom instructors teach without a solid and current understanding of what we know about how people learn best and ways to faciliate quality learning in the classroom. Among the indicators of quality learning is students' possession of deep understanding and knowledge that is transferable outside the context of the original instuction, whether this be in more advanced courses in the curriculum or the workplace. I highly encourage you to help promote student success in ways that go beyond making college more accessible, mechanisms for ease-of-transfer, etc. by placing equal attention on the need to improve the quality of instruction and student learning. As you have asked for contuinued partnership to further the improvements you believe are needed, please know I am willing to offer what I can to your efforts. You may contact me at minddesignsjf@aim.com. Sincerely, Jerome Feldman

15. kderrah - April 19, 2010 at 07:57 pm

Dr. Biden or other posters,

When/ where will this summit be held? Does anyone know?

we're ready with ideas!


16. sophox - April 20, 2010 at 11:26 am


Agreed. The first step toward increasing the quality of our teachers, of course, is to add a significant pedagogical component to our advanced degree programs. Or perhaps a pedagogical area could be available for grad students who want it, and, once such a thing is widely available, community colleges should insist upon their job candidates having completed it.

(But let's not hand this off to the Education Departments.)

17. alwaysquestioning - April 20, 2010 at 05:11 pm

There needs to be a national guideline that is tied to federal funding for the ratio of full-time to part-time faculty in community colleges. There should also be a guideline for administrator to student ratios.

18. elifmavi - April 21, 2010 at 08:18 am

<Comment removed by moderator>

19. beprepared - April 26, 2010 at 02:13 pm

The greatest power of community colleges is the "local focus" mission most have been assigned. To maximize knowledge related outcomes in our communities, these valuable institutions need a high degree of "local control". The last thing community colleges need are more state or federal mandates.

That said, there is much to be gained from more state and national discussions about how education can maximize productive outcomes. Currently, the rigid nature of the education sytem creates too many barriers for those seeking our help. How can we effectively empower ability and improve opportunity awareness and access? Sharing ideas, successes and failures is a good thing, if in the process distant politians are restrained from unwise meddling.

20. ntphillips - May 08, 2010 at 01:07 pm

I did the exact same assignment in my "freshman" English class! I was nervous to give the assignment because it seemed to me that my colleagues were focused on literary essays and catching students up from what they "should have been doing in high school." My students at community colleage appreciated assignments that had a clear practical application. While I didn't abandon the literary canon, tying everything we did in class to a real world use or example worked for my classes. -Nathan Phillips, nathaniel@pobox.com

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