AURORA | Community College of Aurora president Betsy Oudenhoven was working at Joliet Junior College outside Chicago when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. The former Chicago resident’s historic election was inspirational to her student body, and Oudenhoven credits him with boosting the profile of community colleges while in office.
“Community colleges have historically been viewed as second to four-year higher education, and I think the Obama administration was really the first to elevate the status of community colleges and say ‘Hey America, these institutions are really important.’” Oudenhoven said.
It’s a perspective that Oudenhoven and community college advocates across the nation are hoping will return to the White House when Obama’s former vice president Joe Biden takes the oath of office next month.
Biden comes into office with a higher-education agenda that would be a boon to the nation’s community colleges. And soon-to-be First Lady Jill Biden, a longtime community college professor, is expected to make sure those institutions aren’t overlooked.
“For community college people, we feel like we have advocates in the White House now who really understand what we do,” Oudenhoven said.
It’s not a feeling she said she gets from current secretary of education Betsy Devos, who does not have a background in higher education. Under Devos, the department focused more on school choice and decreasing regulations at for-profit institutions.
The Trump administration’s recent executive order prohibiting many types of diversity and inclusion trainings could also have been a real challenge for CCA, Oudenhoven said, which has made promoting equitable access to education a key priority.
Enacting Joe Biden’s agenda will be costly and likely face an uphill battle in a divided Congress, but community college leaders say Jill Biden will focus attention on two-year institutions regardless of any policy changes or monetary investments.
They believe the next First Lady, who will continue to teach English at Northern Virginia Community College, will be a persistent ally, advocate, and spokeswoman over the next four years for two-year colleges, which enroll nearly half of the nation’s undergraduate students and are typically more diverse and have an older average population than do four-year institutions. They also see her insight especially crucial as schools struggle with enrollment declines and budget woes during the pandemic.
“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,” said Joe Garcia, Colorado Community College System chancellor. “That is what I’m really excited about, almost regardless of how much money they can put into our colleges.”
Community colleges have garnered bipartisan support over the years because of their affordability and role in educating students who face the most difficult economic circumstances. But some feel they can also be an afterthought for lawmakers whose experience in higher education typically revolves around four-year colleges.
The president-elect has targeted higher education, including community colleges, in his policy platform. His agenda might also prove costly, potentially limiting what he can get done before Congress.
Joe Biden’s policies include a $50 billion investment in workforce training, student debt relief, and more money to increase the size of Pell Grants, which are awarded to low-income undergraduate students.
Biden’s community college goals include a plan to increase student retention and completion, and the resources available to schools and students.
The American Association of Community Colleges has advocated some of those over the years, including a goal to make community college free for all Americans and to increase investment in job training, said David Baime, the organization’s senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis.
Baime said he’d like to see Biden focus on funds directed to community colleges to help train workers who will fuel the economy. Community colleges played a crucial role in the recovery after the Great Recession.
The coronavirus has hit the schools hard and has eaten into enrollment, prompting calls for more federal aid to help the schools weather the pandemic.
Those who know Jill Biden said she will keep community college goals at the forefront of the president-elect’s mind during and after the pandemic.
Aspen Institute College Excellence Program Senior Fellow Robert Templin, who also served as president of Northern Virginia Community College for 13 years, said he believes the First Lady will be a “champion of community colleges” and elevate them in higher education discussions.
“But, I think, she’ll be more than that,” Templin said. “I think she will be a champion for public education, generally.”
Templin oversaw the college during Biden’s time as second lady and said her main focus was always on students. In addition to teaching community college students, she has a solid understanding of policy. Her doctoral dissertation focused on maximizing student retention in community colleges.
Templin said that she is a talented teacher who is completely dedicated to her students. On White House trips, she would take her English class papers with her to grade and once even taught class right up until she was to introduce President Barack Obama at the college.
“She won’t let community colleges be forgotten or shoved to the periphery,” Templin said.
On the campaign trail, she touted the importance of community colleges.
“There is nothing more important to our democracy or the future of our nation than giving our students the kind of educational opportunities that they deserve,” she said during an online Democratic rally. “And it’s clear: Community colleges change lives.”
Achieving the Dream President and CEO Karen Stout added Biden as first lady will create an unprecedented moment for community colleges nationwide. Never has there been a first lady with such intimate knowledge of what the institutions can provide to students.
The organization focuses on closing achievement gaps and accelerating student success at community colleges nationwide.
Stout expects Biden to continue advocating for causes she’s championed for years, such as helping women succeed at community colleges.
“She will be putting the student voice in the middle of policymaking not just for education, but for so many other things that touch our students, including transportation, health care, the pandemic,” Stout said.
And at least for now, many hope the Biden administration and the first lady prompt states to also look at increasing investments in schools. In Colorado, higher education funding lags behind the rest of the country.
“If we really want to grow our economy and increase college-going rates, we have to do it through our community colleges,” Garcia said. “And maybe we haven’t been paid enough attention to in the past. That’s what I really hope state legislators will see.”
For CCA, Oudenhoven hopes that the Biden Administration will reverse Trump Administration policies weakening Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era policy allowing many people who came to the U.S. illegally as minors to obtain work permits and renewable temporary deferrals of deportation.
The college does not keep track of students who are undocumented because it did not want to be put in a position to ever have to turn that information over to the federal government.
“We can’t help them if we don’t know who they are but we also don’t want to put them at risk,” Oudenhoven said.
She estimated that there are hundreds of students at the college who have DACA, and the Trump Administration’s efforts to overturn the policy was a significant source of stress and anxiety for them. Reinstating the program would be “huge” for the college, she said.
On top of promising policy initiatives, Oudenhoven said that makeup of the Biden-Harris ticket is meaningful for community college students. It’s the first presidential ticket since 1984 where neither candidate has an Ivy League degree, and the very first to have a graduate of a historically black college.
Over 60% of CCA students are people of color and over 60% are first generation. It also serves a large immigrant and refugee population.
“It is so powerful for my students to see someone like Kamala Harris who is a person of color, a daughter of immigrants, a graduate of an HBCU, in the vice presidency,” Oudenhoven said. “No matter your politics, it’s historic. But for my students they see themselves in her.”