Is Jill Biden US higher education’s secret weapon?

Being married to a long-serving community college lecturer means incoming president will have a regular insider’s view

November 18, 2020
Jill Biden
Source: Getty
Jill Biden

Badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic and technological shifts, US community colleges are holding out hope that the incoming First Lady, Jill Biden, can lead a revival of higher education for the nation’s neediest students.

Dr Biden is a long-time community college advocate and instructor whose campaign work emphasised president-elect Joe Biden’s promise to bolster the two-year sector by covering the tuition fee needs of its 10 million students.

But fulfilling that pledge looks an increasingly distant prospect as the US economy is throttled by the pandemic and Republicans look likely to hold the US Senate. Need among the nation’s 1,100 community colleges, meanwhile, continues to grow, with their new enrolments plummeting nationwide this autumn by nearly 19 per cent.

Into this moment, Dr Biden may loom as a potential saviour — a teacher admired by her students and cherished by her colleagues who will fill the US president’s nightly dinner table with first-hand tales of struggle and perseverance from the most poorly resourced corners of academia.

“She’s acutely aware of the challenges, the hardships, the barriers, that the students face,” said Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees.

“So you’re going to have somebody presumably who’s going to be very much involved in the administration’s education – and certainly community college – agenda who really has been there,” Mr Brown said.

The 69-year-old incoming first lady has been a policy strategist and classroom teacher for more than four decades, most recently at Northern Virginia Community College near Washington. There she regularly wins high student ratings, if not quite the top marks given to her fellow English teachers judged to be easier graders.

She took a break from the college to work on her husband’s campaign, but has said she plans to return and thereby become the first presidential spouse to hold a full-time paid job outside the White House.

The president-elect certainly sees her as a champion for her profession. “For American educators,” Mr Biden said in his victory speech, “it is a great day for you all. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”

Yet the trouble facing all of US higher education – as the nation’s congealed political systems stymie policy solutions throughout society – might be more than any one person can reasonably be expected to overcome.

The year began more promisingly, with most states already covering most or all the costs facing community college students beyond their federal Pell Grant money, and Mr Biden among several presidential contenders proposing to extend that guarantee nationwide.

But now, free tuition plans look blocked and community college attendance has sunk. While the shrinking student numbers are blamed largely on the pandemic, two-year institutions already were bleeding enrolment before Covid struck.

Four-year colleges and universities have also lost enrolment, but not as badly. And newer public institutions designed from the start as online operations registered strong gains, mostly from the same working-class populations that community colleges traditionally serve.

Many community colleges now must adopt such capabilities or partner with those that do, Mr Brown said. That might be their long-term salvation, and Dr Biden could push the transformation forward, especially if she ends up running her own classes online, he said.

“It can only be a good thing if she continues to be teaching and be engaged,” Mr Brown said, “because things are changing very rapidly.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Jill Biden: sector champion with president’s ear

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