In a packed Austin Convention Center conference hall Tuesday morning, Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden delivered a keynote on the importance of community colleges to open SXSWedu's Getting to College Graduation Summit.
The summit, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is focused on identifying the major trends in higher education, who they affect, and where the greatest impacts can be made. In 2010, after Melinda Gates joined Biden for a White House summit on community colleges, the foundation invested $35 million in boosting community college completion rates.
Biden was introduced by Christopher Thomas, a Houston Community College student and Texas native who explained that he initially attended South Carolina's Coker College. The cost, however, became too much for his parents and loans to support, and he dropped out during his second year, returning home to attend community college for a more manageable tuition — though he aspires to eventually attend business school after his final semester this summer. This set the stage for much of Biden's keynote.
"I can't agree more with what you said that not only should our young people dream big, but like you, all Americans should have the opportunity to realize their full potential," said Biden, a community college professor who teaches at Northern Virginia Community College, touting Thomas as an example of the many students who seize the opportunity provided by community colleges.
For Biden, the difference she is able to make in the lives of community college students is critical, she told attendees, adding that seeing their confidence in their own abilities improve is especially rewarding. One such student she mentioned, "Shannon," a homeless single mother of two who had left an abusive relationship and was at one point living in a car with her children. Biden assisted her, as part of her Women's Mentoring Project, in writing a scholarship essay so she could transfer to George Mason University. These types of mentorship opportunities, Biden said, are what community colleges "are all about."
"I can honestly say that my students are my heroes," she said. "I'm profoundly moved by their determination to learn and their quest to make a better life for themselves and their families."
Of course, many institutions have seen an influx of older students juggling work, school, and family life since the recession. Educating students and meeting their needs isn't just their responsibility, she said, but that of everyone. According to Biden, 66% of job openings will require some form of higher education by the end of the decade, and nearly half of the 18 million undergraduate students in America currently attend a community college, but less than half of those will graduate or transfer to a four-year school within six years.
At this point, as expected, Biden highlighted the Obama administration's push to provide two free years of community college to qualifying students. There are, however, still questions unanswered regarding the program. For example, its impact on the business model of traditional four-year institutions. It goes without saying that a large number of students completing gen ed courses would encroach upon the large lecture hall introductory courses that are cash cows for many institutions. Whether that would lead to an increase in partnerships between four-year institutions and regional community colleges remains to be seen.
What is known, however, is that the administration has invested $2 billion into strengthening school-employer partnerships so students can move into existing jobs in their communities.
"We believe all students, new and returning, should be able to graduate, ready for the new economy without being burdened with debt," Biden said.
Additionally, Biden pointed out the administration's increases to Pell Grants and tuition tax credits, caps on student loan payments, and streamlining of financial aid processes, with the last bit providing an opportunity to mention President Obama's Tuesday announcement at Georgia Tech of a "student aid bill of rights." The announcement includes the potential for changes to bankruptcy laws and other regulations.
Biden's trip to SXSWedu also included stops at Florida's Santa Fe Community College and Texas' Austin Community College, which were provided as examples of institutions that are taking advantage of innovative tech strategies to increase retention and completion. The former has seen a completion rate 20% higher than the national average. Students at Austin Community College, she added, are twice as likely to finish developmental math courses than students enrolled in traditional schools.
"We all reap the benefits when our citizens are well-educated and well-trained," she said. "It means that our economies are more vibrant and our future is brighter."