2021 National Legislative Summit Day 2 Recap + First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Lawmakers Outline Administration and Congressional Agendas
by Mark Toner
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden returned to the Community College National Legislative Summit Tuesday, almost a dozen years to the day after her first appearance following the inauguration of then-vice president Joe Biden. “It was one of my first events as Second Lady…I’m so happy to begin another administration with you,” said Biden, who continues to teach classes at Northern Virginia Community College from the White House as she assumes her new role.
Despite the unprecedented national crises faced by lawmakers and college leaders during the Great Recession and today, Biden told NLS attendees that one important thing has changed. During the Obama-Biden Administration, she often called community colleges “America’s best kept secret.”
“The secret’s out now,” Biden said. “It’s time to pick up the bullhorn and take the lead…. As we rebuild our economy, we need community colleges more than ever. This is personal to the president and me. We understand the power of your schools. We know supporting your students and your institutions is urgent.”
The Associated Press covered Dr. Biden's remarks, emphasizing her call for "free access to community college, training."
One of the commitments articulated in ACCT's 2020 Strategic Vision was to advocate for universal access to community college as the 21st-century evolutionary equivalent to the universal public kindergarten-through-high-school movement a century ago.
ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown has served on the national College Promise Advisory Board since the initiative's inception. College Promise was launched by President Barack Obama in 2015, and is led by Dr. Martha Kanter, former Undersecretary of Education. Dr. Biden served as honorary chair until 2019.
Federal Support for Community Colleges
Speaking later in the day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called community colleges “engines of opportunity,” stressing the need for ongoing support to support institutions and their students. “You are invaluable partners in this vital mission,” she told NLS attendees.
Carmel Martin, deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council for Economic Mobility, outlined the administration’s goals for education, beginning with the proposed American Rescue Plan emergency legislative package that includes more than $165 billion in aid for K-12 and higher ed. “This is a moment of profound crisis for our nation,” she said. “Our response to the nation’s economic health and challenges requires immediate action.”
Beyond immediate relief, the administration plans to propose a wide range of initiatives, including supporting free tuition for community colleges, providing grants to institutions to help completion efforts, investments in workforce partnership grants based on the Obama-era Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program, the expansion of the Pell Grant program, funding to improve technology and improve facilities, changes to federal student loan program, and renewed efforts to protect students from predatory institutions.
Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education, told attendees that the details of these proposals would emerge in the coming months. “This is a moment that requires we make meaningful and lasting change and a lasting difference for millions of today’s students and for future generations,” she said. “The pandemic has not undermined this reality. It has clarified it.”
Also Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers reiterated their support for the sector. “It is more important than ever before that we support community college students and make sure you can weather this pandemic,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Lawmakers also urged NLS attendees to continue advocacy efforts. “Whether you’re joining us on Zoom or dialing in by phone, you are certainly at the table,” said Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.). “We need to have you at the table as we go forward and address the issues facing the nation.”
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) called community colleges “equalizers,” particularly in rural and low-income communities. “The work you do at the community college level is very important not just to those students… but to the communities from which they come and many will go back to,” he said.
Calling NLS attendees “my community college experts,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) stressed the importance of workforce development programs that meet employer needs and legislative priorities “that will make us far better as a country and keep more of our students maximizing their potential.”
“As we begin to recover and look to strengthening and rebuilding our workforce, community colleges will play a critical role in training the next generation of workers,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) She credited community college leaders for “giving us an understanding of what so many of your students and their families are going through and how hard you are working to make sure they can continue their progress forward.”
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, pointed to ongoing Congressional efforts to address “unsustainable out-of-pocket costs for students and workers” exacerbated by state disinvestment in higher education. “It’s absolutely important to look at ways we can continue to ensure that your programs remain affordable and accessible,” added Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.).
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) called preserving and enhancing the Pell Grant program “one of my top goals for many years.” Pointing to bipartisan support for COVID relief legislation to date, he added, “hopefully we can find a way to work together and get a strong bipartisan package out the door.”
Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) urged community college leaders to focus on equity as the nation moves beyond the pandemic. “COVID-19 has only made these disparities starker, and the need to address them more urgent,” she said. “Each of you has a role to play in rectifying this disparity and ensuring that students receive the justice they deserve.”
“The pandemic opened up a door. It showed us disparity,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), adding that community colleges “became central to the response.”
“To the economic recovery and the human recovery, community colleges will continue to play that role,” Grijalva said.
Showcasing the High-Level Education of Community College
To end the day, Maryland's Montgomery College hosted a virtual reception in which is demonstrated its Bio-Trac biotechnology training partnership, through which professional scientists—most of whom hold Ph.D.s and master's degrees—learn how to use technologies such as CRISPR gene editing. Workshops are taught by scientists from the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University and other leading research organizations. The program has proved to be a significant asset to the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region, particularly through its work over the past year with vaccine research and development.
The Community College National Legislative Summit concludes on Wednesday with sessions on strengthening rural community colleges, additional speakers from Capitol Hill, and the presentation of the National Education Service Awards to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.)
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For more information about the Community College National Legislative Summit, visit NLS.ACCT.org.
Held Feb. 8-10, the National Legislative Summit is the premier community college advocacy event in Washington, D.C.
The Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) is a non-profit educational organization of governing boards, representing more than 6,500 elected and appointed trustees who govern over 1,200 community, technical, and junior colleges in the United States and beyond.