Why Biden’s ed agenda prioritizes community colleges

Community colleges have yet to see the boost in enrollment that often comes during times of economic upheaval
By: | November 12, 2020
A community college student receives a diploma at graduation ceremony at San Jacinto College near Houston this summer.A community college student receives a diploma at graduation ceremony at San Jacinto College near Houston this summer.

Incoming First Lady Jill Biden’s teaching position at a community college gives President-elect Joe Biden a unique perspective into the plight of two-year schools during the COVID era.

Community colleges have yet to see the boost in enrollment that often comes during times of economic upheaval and high unemployment.

First-year student enrollment at two-year institutions declined by nearly 19% in the latest numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse.

“Community colleges are the least funded sector of education,” says Martha M. Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “Lower-enrollment and lower allocations from state budgets are going to impact the bottom line at a time when colleges need to increase services to students.”

One reason for the enrollment drop is that the average community college student is 28 years old, and might be juggling work and children rather than enrolling in classes.


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More than 60% of the nation’s 11.8 million community college students work full-time, and nearly three-quarters work part-time. Potential students who have lost jobs may have other priorities than higher education at the moment, she adds.

“Students just don’t have the bandwidth, literally and figuratively,” Parham says. “And we’re hearing pretty consistently that many students don’t want to talk online classes.”

‘Familiar with the barriers’

At the top of the Biden-Harris higher ed agenda is offering students two years of debt-free community college or high-quality similar training.

'Least funded sector of education': Why #Biden’s #highered agenda prioritizes #communitycollege Click To TweetThe federal government would cover 75% of the costs with states contributing the rest to the initiative that would also cover DREAMers who came to U.S. as children.

The incoming administration also intends to launch a grant program that supports community colleges that implement evidence-based retention and completion practices. This could cover academic and career counseling, advising, dual-enrollment programs and articulation agreements, Parham says.


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It’s expected that such an initiative would prioritize wraparound services for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, single parents and veterans, she says.

Biden has also expressed support for funding emergency grants for students who face having to drop out due to unexpected financial challenges.

“I think the president-elect and Dr. Biden have a great knowledge of community college as a sector and how they provide millions of students with a pathway to higher-wage jobs,” Parham says. “They’re also familiar with the barriers that prevent students from completing.”

Republicans also support training

Biden’s proposed $50 billion investment in workforce training would also cover community colleges. And training is an issue that has support from Republicans who appear likely to retain control of Congress, adds Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.


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“Republicans are for training and accountability and that’s a solid, pre-Trump education policy,” Carnevale says. ” They want efficiency and a limited federal role, and they tend to favor training over degrees.”

However, one element that is missing from the Biden-Harris platform is an emphasis on career counseling beginning as early as middle and continuing through two- and four-year institutions, he says.

“That’s the missing link because the jobs are going to be there,” Carnevale says.”This is a system that needs to begin in high or middle school to help students choose colleges and programs, and then turn college degrees into jobs.”