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What I Wish Jill Biden Would Talk About With Respect to America’s Community Colleges

(Photo: John Orrell / Flickr)

“Our community colleges can serve as 21st-century job training centers, working with local businesses to help workers learn the skills to fill the jobs of the future.” –President Barack Obama

As the wife of the vice president and as a longtime community college English teacher, Jill Biden is in a unique position to be an advocate for community colleges, particularly their students, a high percentage of whom are working class, minority and first-time college students [1] and their faculty, a high percentage of whom teach part-time [2]. There is a lot to admire in that Biden continues to teach at a community college while her husband is in office. I believe White House and media reports of her scheduling her political commitments around her community college teaching and reading student papers on airplane trips. Other than the president, Biden is the administration's lead spokesperson on community colleges, and she has helped bring greater media and public attention to them.

It is extremely disappointing, then, that she has simply been a mouthpiece for the Obama administration's narrative of community colleges “as 21st-century job training centers, working with local businesses to help workers learn the skills to fill the jobs of the future.” In this narrative, those who attend community colleges are economic entities: “workers” and a “workforce.” The administration rarely, if ever, describes the community college as a site for educating students to become actively engaged citizens capable of participating in a democracy.[3] Instead, it has encouraged community colleges to offer more and more “fast-tracked” vocationally oriented job-training programs whose curricula are driven by the business community, including (believe it or not) Goldman Sachs. As the president told a gathering at the University of Texas at Austin, “[W]e're upgrading our community colleges by tying the skills taught in our classrooms to the needs of the local businesses in the growth sections of our economy.”[4] What funding the administration has provided severely strapped community college systems and campuses has been directly aimed at job (re)training.[5]

In her op-ed pieces before each of the first three regional community college summits, Biden reiterated the administration's economic-centric vision of the community college by describing its central role in reviving the economy through job training.[6] In “Harnessing community colleges,” an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 28, 2011, the same day as the first of the four total regional summits, she wrote: “Monday's summit at the Community College of Philadelphia will bring together leaders in education, business, labor, government, and philanthropy from Philadelphia and the rest of the Northeast. It's designed to support community colleges' efforts to spur local economic growth through training programs, partnerships, and technology-driven learning.” She began her latest op-ed, published on March 22, the day before the latest summit in Indianapolis, by writing, “Community colleges play a vital role in restoring our nation's economy.”

I wish Biden would describe the community college as something more than a job-training center. I would encourage her to discuss three other topics with respect to the community college:

  1. The community college as a site for something other than job (re) training. Community college students deserve an education that entails critical literacy, general education and citizenship for democracy. In short, they deserve an education that teaches them what it means to be human, and that envisions work as vocation, or calling, and not simply as “get them in and get them out” vocational training.
  2. The plight of community college faculty, particularly part-time faculty. Biden has taught as a part-time or adjunct faculty member in community colleges, yet, she remains silent on the issue not only of the community college's exploitation of part-time faculty, but also on the research that suggests that part-time faculty have a negative impact on the community college's graduation rates and transfer function[7] – a striking omission if the administration is honest in its goal to increase community college certificates and graduation rates by five million by 2020.
  3. The severe financial crisis currently facing community colleges at the local and state level and the need for the federal government to provide increased funding. The most significant event of the White House Summit in October 2010 was not the breakout sessions, but rather what the president did not address in his remarks – the funding crisis. He made reference to it only in passing: “They may not get the same resources as other schools….” Currently, community colleges face severe funding issues that have resulted in limited enrollment, cancelled and closed class sections, and raised tuition – all threats to its “open door” mission. Research conducted by the Brookings Institution found that community colleges are so underfunded at the federal level that the report's lead author, Sara Goldrick-Rab, argued: “To bring community colleges to the table and convey its strong support for their work, the federal government should double its current level of direct support, from $2-billion to $4- billion” [8].

As a community college English teacher, I find it hard to imagine that Biden, as a longtime community college teacher, as someone who wrote a dissertation on student retention and as someone who teaches in the humanities, doesn't envision higher education as something more than job (re)training.

Biden appears unable to challenge the job training model that has become the dominant description for the 21st-century community college, and, if the administration has its way, four-year colleges and universities.[9] The fact that she hasn't discussed these topics (at least in any public forum) demonstrates how clearly aligned the Obama administration is with corporate America and how powerful a hold corporate America now has on the administration and, in turn, education in this country.

Nevertheless, it is exciting to at least contemplate how the narrative concerning community colleges in this country might change if, at the fourth community college regional summit in San Diego on April 15, Biden publicly proclaimed that community colleges are educational institutions and not simply job-training centers; that part-time faculty are exploited and deserve better working conditions and that more full-time faculty are needed; and that community colleges need a considerable increase in federal funding in order to meet their democratic mission as an “open door” institution. To put these three topics into the public and political discourse about the role of community colleges in our country would be substantial evidence that the Obama administration is, in fact, interested in education.

I'm not holding my breath.

1. Stephen Provasnik and Michael Planty, “Community Colleges: Special Supplement to The Condition of Education 2008.” (NCES Statistics 2008-033), National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, Washington, DC, 2008.

2. Provasnik and Planty, “Community Colleges,” p. 8.

3. A number of recent books have argued forcefully for the important role of higher education in a democracy, for example, Henry A. Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux in “Take Back Higher Education,” Mike Rose in “Why School?” and Martha C. Nussbaum in “Not For Profit.”

4. “Remarks by the President on Higher Education and the Economy at the University of Texas at Austin,” August 9, 2010,; “$500 million small business initiative includes community colleges,” Community College Times, November 18, 2009; Grace Chen, “Community College Curriculum: Drastically Changed by Today's Economy,” Community College Review, August 20, 2009.

5. After its much publicized $12 billion, 10-year American Graduation Initiative (AGI) was cut (without much fight from the president and House Democrats) from the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act, the administration unveiled the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program, which would provide $500 million a year over four years through a competitive application. With Republicans now in charge of the House, there's even speculation that the TAACCCT program may be cut.

6. The administration's faith in the efficacy of community college job (re)training with respect to reviving the economy is not shared by everyone. See Paul Davidson, “Laid-off workers retrain but end up in same spot: Jobless,” USA Today, June 6, 2010; Justin Lahart, “New Skills, Few Job Offers,” The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2010. The American Prospect offers a much more sobering take on the “Green Job Search”; see Monica Potts, December 2010, p. 12-16.

7. Mary Beth Marklein, “Studies Examine Impact of Part-time College Faculty,” USA Today, December 4, 2008; “Tenured faculty at two-year schools impact student transfers,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 26.11, July 9, 2009; Daniel Jacoby, “Effects of Part-Time Faculty Employment on Community College Graduation Rates,” The Journal of Higher Education, Volume 77, Number 6, November/December 2006, 1081-1103.

8. Sara Goldrick-Rab, Douglas N. Harris, Christopher Mazzeo, and Gregory Kienzl,“Transforming America's Community Colleges: A Federal Policy Proposal to Expand Opportunity and Promote Economic Prosperity,” Brookings, May 2009; Sara Goldrick-Rab, “America Must Put Community Colleges First,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55.36, May 15, 2009.

9. In a speech to business leaders, Jane Oates, assistant secretary for employment and training at the US Department of Labor, argued that four-year institutions needed to become like community college with respect to job training or “they may 'become dinosaurs.'” “Universities Called Out On Preparing Students for Jobs,” Community College Times, November 10, 2009.

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