Michelle Obama was once asked by People magazine what it was like to travel with Jill Biden on Air Force One.
“Jill is … oftentimes she’s grading papers,” the former first lady answered. “Which is always funny, because I forget, ‘Oh yeah, you have a day job’… and she’s so diligent.”
Grading those community college papers on Air Force One immersed Jill Biden in the dichotomy of the great American experiment, the inequality that permeates higher education. So, what will it mean to have a “first professor” as first lady in a new administration?
A great deal. Jill Biden’s continued commitment to teaching is profoundly indicative of the quality of her approach to education. The best professors know that teaching is both an art and a science.
Biden’s choice to teach community college students, who represent over 40 percent of all undergraduates in the U.S., is of particular significance. Unlike highly competitive selective colleges, where only 16 percent of students are from the bottom half of the economic strata, community colleges have almost 60 percent from the bottom half.
Teachers’ aspirations for their students’ achievements are balanced by the lives of the students in front of them. The best faculty combine personal teaching experience with research-based knowledge.
This deep well of knowledge and experience will heighten the impact of a “first professor” in the White House, in this era of ever-widening income gaps between those with a college education and those without.
Racial, ethnic and gender inequities have all been exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic. Before, many community college students wove together minimum-wage work with college, studying to be nurses and EMTs, retail managers and computer system technicians.
Now, community colleges are hemorrhaging students whose jobs are gone, and whose families are eating from food banks or being evicted from their homes. Too many are struggling to keep up with online classes, using cell phones as their only digital devices.
They are often focused on obtaining the skills necessary to secure near-term jobs to support themselves and their families, rather than to embark on stable, promising careers.
Community colleges have been called “the people’s colleges.” Their students typically attend college in their hometowns, and over half work more than 20 hours each week, balancing school with the financial demands of making a living. Many are parents.
To heal a divided nation, having a first lady telling the truth about the realities of their lives is a critical first step. To work with community college students is to encounter an America where the hope for opportunity is still strong, but the reality is slipping away.
Stark funding disparities exist in higher education. In 2015, public subsidies, not including real estate tax exemptions, totaled $105,000 per full-time student at Princeton University, and just $2,400 at Essex County College, the two-year school an hour up the highway.
Jill Biden understands this. She’s written op-eds, given keynote addresses, saluted graduates, and honored scholars to underline the undeniable power of a great education to transform individual lives. Earlier this month, she pledged her support for free community colleges.
And yet it is reading student essays from her English class that provides her deep understanding about resurrecting the promise of education as a pathway to economic security.
She will know the names and faces of students who have lost minimum-wage jobs or dropped her class because they can no longer afford child care.
She will understand the student who is the first in his family to go to college, amid derision from friends in his neighborhood about his stack of books. She will continue being a tireless advocate for education and education equity.
She’ll be looking to strengthen pathways — and create new ones — to link education with economic prosperity, like the Workforce Partnership Initiative of the Business Roundtable, with CEOS of leading businesses partnering with local colleges and universities to prepare students for a 21st-century workplace.
She’s highlighted these programs at a time when community colleges across the country are working in new ways to create partnerships between education and business that are aimed at increasing the diversity of U.S. employees in stable, well-paying jobs.
In New York, the New York Jobs CEO Council is bringing business, education and the community together to equip New Yorkers for the jobs of tomorrow, with a goal of hiring 100,000, including 25,000 from the City University of New York.
Jill Biden understands using education as a strategic initiative to create and sustain a middle class, and that it will take, as political scientist Rogers Smith writes, “a broad coalition in support of a more egalitarian and inclusive vision of America.”
That is the vision of a revitalized educational system that is possible with Jill Biden in the White House, someone who understands how community colleges can fit into this picture — and who is still grading her students’ papers.
Gail Mellow is president emeritus of LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York and executive director of the New York Jobs CEO Council.
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