Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Dr. Jill Biden at the 2015 Community College National Legislative Summit
Community colleges have entered a new day in America. As an educator, I am proud to be part of an administration that is committed to investing in our students, and restoring the promise of the American education system.
In the depths of the recession, this administration saw higher education as critical to our plans to revitalize the American economy, and moved quickly to support students and their families. In the first few months in office, we increased the dollar amount of Pell Grants as well as the number of students who qualify; increased tuition tax credits; let students cap their federal student loan payments at 10 percent of their income; and streamlined the financial aid process.
Since then, we have invested two billion dollars into 700 colleges, to strengthen partnerships between community colleges and employers to create the next generation of skilled workers. In fact, tomorrow, my husband Joe, the Vice President, will be in Iowa at Des Moines Area Community College to highlight the importance of helping more Americans go to college and the critical role that partnerships between community colleges and employers can play in helping Americans obtain the skills they need to succeed in the workforce.
Last year, Joe launched an apprenticeship initiative—a partnership among community colleges and employers—to provide a career pathway for workers, setting them on an upward trajectory for life. In January, Joe and I traveled to Knoxville with President Obama where he announced his America’s College Promise proposal—to make two years of community college free for responsible students.
This administration recognizes the value of community colleges, and in investing in them. We believe they are vital to the future of our country, because by the end of this decade two-thirds of all job openings will require some form of higher education. Currently, nearly half of all undergraduate students attend community colleges.
For the past six years, we have worked to highlight the importance of community colleges to America’s future. At the President’s request, I hosted the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges in 2010, and over the past few years we’ve seen the leadership of faculty and administration at community colleges across the country make transformative change on their campuses to help improve outcomes for their students.
I have travelled across the country, from Seattle to Miami, and from Texas to New York, visiting over 60 of your campuses to see firsthand how community colleges are able to increase employment opportunities for students and workers. I met many of you during my Community College to Career bus tour.
At one of the stops, I visited Wytheville Community College in rural Virginia. The school serves as a hub for workforce training, and helps to meet the needs of one the largest employers in the region: Gatorade. I met students and workers, including women in their forties, who were able to go back to school and recast themselves for good-paying, middle-class jobs at the Gatorade plant. Wytheville had gone through an incredible revitalization in large part due to the flexibility of its community college.
This story replicates itself time and time again across this nation. That’s what's so special about community colleges. They open the doors for so many Americans, new and returning students, to enter the middle class and are foundational to strengthening state and local economies. As Horace Mann said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer.”
We all have our own stories on why we are passionate about education. For me, it is my grandmother. She taught at an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse where three grades of students were piled into one classroom. My grandmother would take me with her to school and used to let me ring the brass school bell to call her students to class. I still have that bell.
It was my grandmother who developed my love of reading. She read to me all the time, so I grew up loving to read. When I was in college, I realized that so many kids could not read or did not love to read the way I did. That is when I decided I was going to become a reading specialist. I wanted to share and teach that love of reading, like my grandmother did with me.
So, after I earned my Master’s degree in remedial reading, I began teaching as a reading specialist in public high schools. From there, I taught English at a psychiatric hospital for adolescents, and I continue to teach English as a full-time professor at a community college in Northern Virginia. In fact, I will be back in my classroom tomorrow morning. I have been an educator for more than 30 years, and I have spent the last 20 years teaching at community colleges.
In 2008, after the President and Vice President were first elected to the White House, I told Joe that not only would I use my position as Second Lady to highlight the critical role of community colleges in creating the best, most-educated workforce in the world, but I would continue teaching as well. So, one week after inauguration, I was back in the classroom. Because, teaching is not what I do; it is who I am.
Teaching is my life’s work. I teach because I love seeing the difference that I hope to make in my students lives. My goal is to always give them confidence in their own abilities, because I know confidence will carry them well beyond my classroom in whatever they do.
As I work hard every day to inspire my students, it is ultimately they who inspire me. Every day in my classroom I see the power of education to break down barriers and to open students’ eyes to the possibilities around them.
In my classes, I find single parents who come to school in the evening, weary from a long day, yet eager to create a brighter future for their children. I have taught veterans who return to the classroom to complete their higher education as they look to transition to civilian careers. I have seen workers, who have gone as far as they can in their jobs, get the skills they need to reach the next level.
I see it over and over again because the students are so committed to furthering their education. I can honestly say that my students are my heroes. I am profoundly moved by their determination to learn, and their quest to make a better life for themselves and their families.
I know that many of you have also seen students transformed by new ideas. But, as important as these individual success stories are, we all know that the responsibility for educating students is not the student’s alone. It is a responsibility that belongs to all of us.
Community colleges are uniquely positioned to fulfill this responsibility—to meet the needs of the actual community where they live—whether that means partnering with local employers on credentialing, working to make sure classes are flexible for working families, or supporting a seamless transition to a four-year degree. Because, we all reap the benefits when our citizens are well-educated and well-trained. It means that our economies are more vibrant, and our future is brighter.
You understand that better than anyone. Which is why we need you. As you heard, during the State of the Union, President Obama has big plans for community colleges and this administration needs you to keep making your voices heard, and to bring others into the fold.
Over the next few months, the administration is going to build a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, philanthropists and, most importantly, higher education leaders like all of you to support our efforts to strengthen community colleges, because all Americans deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential.
On behalf of the President, First Lady Michelle Obama, and my husband Joe, thank you for your leadership, and for your continued partnership.
This is the moment for community colleges to shine.