Tuesday, September 1, 2009

ACCT's Exclusive Interview with Dr. Jill Biden

Dr. Jill Biden, wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and a longtime community college instructor and advocate, is featured in the summer 2009 issue of Trustee Quarterly, the award-winning magazine published by the Association of Community College Trustees.

In the interview, Biden discusses her new appointment by President Obama to serve as a global advocate for community colleges, explains why she is so committed to community college students and the community college mission, and more.

And if you are an ACCT member, watch your mailbox for the new issue of Trustee Quarterly, which also features interviews with Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis, College Board Professor and Senior Presidential Adviser Dr. Gene A. Budig, and Council for Higher Education Accreditation President Dr. Judith S. Eaton. ACCT will be posting extended versions of these interviews right here, on the Community College Inside the Beltway blog, in the coming weeks as the 40th Annual ACCT Congress approaches.

Showcasing America’s Community Colleges

An exclusive interview with Dr. Jill Biden

Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, has been an educator for the past 28 years and continues to teach English Classes at Northern Virginia Community College.

Dr. Biden has a long history of activism in her community, and she continues to work to raise awareness on education, military families, and women’s health issues. Given her professional experience and passion, President Obama has asked Dr. Biden to help highlight the importance of America’s community colleges, and she frequently visits community colleges and speaks with students, parents, and teachers around the country as part of this outreach.

Dr. Biden spoke with Trustee Quarterly about the new awareness initiative and the source of her commitment to the community college movement.

Q. On May 8, President Barack Obama announced that you will “lead a national effort to raise awareness about what we’re doing to open the doors to our community colleges.” What does this national effort entail?

I have always said that I believe community colleges are one of the best-kept secrets in America — and now my job is to get that secret out through various events, outreach, and media. By supporting community colleges and encouraging increased community college graduation rates, the Obama-Biden Administration is laying the path to success for millions of Americans, and I could not be more pleased to help spread the word. I will continue to visit campuses around the country, speak to groups of parents, teachers, and students, and work to increase media attention around the value of a community college education.

Q. How do you think President Obama’s recognition of the value of community and technical colleges compares with the attitude of past administrations?

It’s clear from the President’s recent announcement of the American Graduation Initiative that not only does he believe in community colleges — he is willing to commit a landmark federal investment to support them. I believe that community colleges are the way of the future, and President Obama recognizes their importance to the students, their families, and the economy. The President has asked me to spread the word about community colleges, and he has also has encouraged me to recruit more teachers.

Q. You’ve taught in public schools as well as community colleges, and you have been quoted as saying, “I really feel, especially in a community college, I can make a difference.” In what ways do community colleges have a greater impact on students’ lives than other education systems?

There was never a question in my mind when we moved to Washington, D.C., that I would continue to teach at a community college. I have witnessed firsthand the power of a community college education to change lives, and I think that the smaller class sizes, the nurturing environment, and the personal contact make a difference in supporting students. In my classes, I get to know my students well and am able to partner with each of them to help them succeed.

Q. Your doctoral dissertation focused on community college student retention. If you were to write that dissertation today, would it be different?

I would say that getting community students into community colleges (and college generally) is one step, but keeping them there and ensuring their success is another. That is why I am so pleased the president announced the American Graduation Initiative recently. As part of that initiative, the president wants community colleges to get the resources they need to graduate an additional 5 million students in the next decade.

Q. If you were serving on the governing board of a community college right now, what would be your three greatest areas of priority?

My first priority would be increasing student retention and completion. While community colleges serve a variety of missions, we cannot understate the importance of graduating students. In response to data showing that the number of jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree will likely grow twice as fast as jobs that don’t require any college, the President set a new national goal of 5 million community college graduates over the next 10 years. And he has shown the administration’s commitment to giving community colleges the resources they need to meet that goal.

Access and affordability are also pressing priorities. Community colleges should work with the larger community to identify ways they can serve the potential students in the area by making them aware of their options. Enrolling in a community college can actually be much more affordable than people may think. The president has increased the maximum Pell Grant award to make community colleges a low-cost, quality option for many students.

The administration is also working to make community colleges affordable for the unemployed by allowing them to continue receiving unemployment benefits while getting job retraining at one of these institutions. Displaced workers can go to www.opportunity.gov to learn more about job retraining options available to them.

Finally, affordability and graduation rates mean nothing if education is not high quality.

These institutions need to ensure their programs are relevant and meet the needs of all the student populations they serve. Students need to be adequately prepared for their next steps — whether it’s training for jobs of the future, transferring to a 4-year university, or working toward an associate’s degree. This will involve innovative curriculum development, and cooperation between community colleges and local, regional, and national industry to develop training programs that will give students the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

Q. You have said that your goal is “to reach out to as many people as possible to explain how this administration is committed to supporting Americans who could benefit from community college educations.” What can community college trustees and other advocates do to build upon your outreach efforts?

The challenge grants the president announced [recently] are competitive and will only fund programs that have proven outcomes or that will be closely evaluated. Institutions should use this opportunity to find new and better ways to help students succeed and to forge meaningful partnerships with industry.

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