Interview With Dr. Jill Biden: "Community Colleges Connect the Dots"

Suddenly, it seems everybody, including President Obama, is talking about community colleges and their vital role in creating trained workers for American jobs in manufacturing, health services, education, and more. But Dr. Jill Biden, wife to Vice President Joe Biden, has known for years that community colleges provide a low-cost, high-quality education for millions of Americans. That’s because Biden has a front-row seat at Northern Virginia Community College, where she teaches English as an associate professor. Recently Biden, an educator with more than 30 years of experience, conversed with NEA Today on issues ranging from college accessibility to her summer reading list.

Q: When President Obama visited your campus (Northern Virginia Community College) in February, he told students, “The truth is that the skills and training you receive here will be the best tool you have to achieve the American Promise.” How is this true? What do you think your students aspire to – and how does the time that they spend in community college classrooms help them achieve those dreams?

Dr. Biden: For the last 18 years, I have seen firsthand the power of community colleges to change lives. I have welcomed students to my classroom from a wide variety of educational, economic, and cultural backgrounds, and I have seen how the community college system offers them the same path of opportunity.

I have students who attend classes on top of a full-time job. I teach moms who are juggling jobs and child care while preparing for new careers. I have many students working toward attending a four-year university.

Community colleges connect the dots – granting two-year degrees, providing new skills training and certification, and providing an affordable path for those who want to move on to a four-year university.


Q: The president of NEA’s Higher Education Council, who is also a community college professor, once said, “Community colleges are the best-kept secret in America!” He felt as if their tremendous value was largely unnoticed. Is this changing? If so, what explains their new place on the national stage?

Dr. Biden: For a long time, I found myself saying the same thing! I do think this is changing, and I am so proud to be part of an Administration that has made community colleges a centerpiece of ensuring that we have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world.

From the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges to the $2 billion TAA[MT1] fund to the President’s budget proposal for an additional $8 billion for a Community College to Career Fund, it’s clear that the value of community colleges is being recognized. The President is committed to forging new partnerships between community colleges and businesses to train workers with skills that will lead directly to jobs.

People are also looking at community colleges as a much more affordable path to a baccalaureate, rather than going straight to a four-year school. Students can spend their first two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year program – without incurring burdensome debt. In these economic times, it can be a tremendous relief to a family to know that community college is a great option – and they don’t have to choose between a college education and basic needs.


Q: This spring, you and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis embarked on a “Community College to Career Tour,” which stopped at campuses in several states. What message did you bring to the educators and students that you met? And what did you learn about these colleges and the communities that they serve?

Dr. Biden: Our Community College to Career Tour visited seven community college-industry partnerships in five states – Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina.  Our goal was to see firsthand some successful partnerships that can be models across the country.

Dr. Jill Biden, second from left, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, right, talks to Adam Dalton, an instructor at the center, at Roane State Community College's Tennessee Technology Center in February. At left is Cheryl Stierwalt, a student in the program. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Community colleges play an absolutely critical role to America’s future because they are working directly to meet the needs of employers in their regions. They can meet evolving workforce needs by being flexible and adaptable. They can train the next generation of our workforce as well as train existing workers in new technologies.

What we saw on our tour was inspiring – we saw partnerships that are literally changing people’s lives. They are training new workers to succeed in careers and giving experienced workers a renewed sense of confidence. Most important, they are helping people get well-paying jobs so they can support their families.


Q: State funding to higher education declined by seven percent overall last year. (In Virginia, where you teach, it fell 15 percent.) In some places, those cuts have led to faculty layoffs and student enrollment caps, which undercut the promise of a public education. How can we address those issues?

Dr. Biden: States have a significant role to play in supporting higher education.  Last year, 41 states cut their funding for higher education, and those cuts at the state level can lead to tuition spikes and higher dropout rates. The President has proposed the College Affordability and Completion framework, which provides incentives for states to make commitments to higher education and strategies for student success. These policies include making it easier to complete school on time and maintaining consistent funding for higher education.

States can help by implementing policies that help students reduce the time it takes to earn a degree in order to keep their costs down, while also developing data systems to better track success. State budget challenges should not become the burden of students and families; states need to have responsible tuition policies.


Q: We have watched the Republican presidential primary race and concluded that these candidates just don’t get the issue of college affordability. (Mitt Romney endorsed a plan that would have delivered the biggest reductions to Pell Grants in the history of the program!) If they could meet your students, what might these candidates – or anybody else – learn about this issue?

Dr. Biden: I am proud to be part of an Administration that has made education a priority by raising the maximum Pell Grant amount, making it easier to apply for student aid, helping students manage student loan debt and expanding the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Community colleges offer a good, quality affordable option for students whose families may not be able to afford to send them directly to a four-year college. Many of my students work so hard just to be in the classroom – they are often juggling jobs, families and other obligations. They need to be able to fulfill their dreams of a college education without being saddled with burdensome debt.

These students deserve that chance. That is why Pell Grants and other forms of student aid are so important. The President has said he wants every American to have at least one year of higher education or post-secondary training, because we know it will help them succeed in the long term. Students should not have to choose between tuition and basic necessities for their family. That is why a Pell Grant can make all the difference.


Q: After three decades spent in classrooms, do you think you are the same teacher you were five, 10, or 20 years ago? What have you learned over the years about yourself or your students? Similarly, how do you think public higher education has evolved during those years?

Dr. Biden: I’m sure I’ve continued to change as a teacher – whether it’s adapting to new technology over the years or continuing to find ways to making English relevant in my students’ daily lives. No matter what teaching methods I have changed, I have found the same premise to be true over time – it’s all about building confidence in your students. The bottom line is that at the end of the day, they need to believe that they have the skills they require to be successful.


Q: One last question: We know you’re passionate about reading and literature: What would you recommend that our members put on their summer reading list? Are there books that inspire you, over and again?

Dr. Biden: Right now, I’m reading Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and War by Sebastian Junger. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is on my to-read list. I always recommend Little Bee by Chris Cleave, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

Note: The original version of this story said Mrs. Biden was an adjunct professor. In fact, Mrs. Biden was promoted to associate professor in 2010. We regret the error.