Community colleges see an advocate in incoming First Lady Jill Biden

Facing pandemic-related enrollment dips and strained budgets, community colleges are hopeful that Jill Biden’s presence as first lady will help bring two-year institutions into the national spotlight and prompt increased support. Jill Biden taught community college before and during Joe Biden’s vice presidency and has said she plans to keep her job teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College after her husband is sworn in as President.

She has long been a vocal advocate for free community college, and her doctoral dissertation focused on retention strategies for marginalized students at two-year institutions. In that 2006 research, Jill Biden outlined a number of strategies that “have since become increasingly popular at colleges that serve vulnerable students,” The Chronicle of Higher Education writes. Biden noted the importance of providing students with strong advising relationships, faculty mentors, mental health resources, and academic pathways.

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A champion for free-college programs

Jill Biden in recent years has helped promote tuition-free college programs through her work on the nonprofit College Promise advisory board and this week reaffirmed that commitment at a symposium sponsored by the College Promise Career Institute. “Joe and I will stand by you in those efforts because we know just how crucial this work is, because we know how our economy depends on it, because we know our students deserve nothing less,” Biden said.

The support is welcome, as community colleges struggle with budgetary pressures and shrinking enrollment amid the coronavirus pandemic. A mid-November update from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that enrollment at community colleges dipped 9.5 percent compared to last fall—with enrollment among Black, Hispanic, and Native American first-time students down nearly 30 percent, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“It’s a very important signal to students in public higher education across the country that we have a president who attended a public university and a First Lady who dedicated her life to the community colleges and teaching,” Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, told EdSource. “It sends a very clear and important signal that public higher education matters and community colleges matter tremendously to the country.”

Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, echoed those sentiments. “She will be able to help people get a better understanding of who we educate and why, and the difference that makes in our economy,” he told Chalkbeat. “That is what I’m really excited about, almost regardless of how much money they can put into our colleges.”

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