Exclusive: Dr. Jill Biden explains why community college is 'one of America's best-kept secrets'
Thousands of high schoolers on Saturday will slide into desks at test centers across the country and put their pencils down to mark what may be their first real push toward higher education.
But the path to college is not always an easy or a smooth one. While many high school students will send those SAT scores with their college applications and move on to the next stage in their education within months, others may wait years before taking the next big step.
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Few in Washington know this better than Dr. Jill Biden. A community college professor for over 20 years, Dr. Biden has been a firm advocate of the idea that people of all ages should be given the opportunity to go after the American dream.
In an exclusive Q&A with AOL.com, Dr. Biden explains why people looking to pursue a college degree should look no farther than their local community college.
AOL.com: You call community colleges 'one of America's best-kept secrets.' What are the contributing factors that you think have kept students of all ages from seeing community college as a viable option for an upwardly mobile life?
Dr. Jill Biden: Community colleges are certainly one of America's best-kept secrets. In the past, there has been a stigma surrounding community colleges, where they were seen as a less viable option because they are not four-year universities. I know differently and so do the millions of people across the country who have received an affordable, quality higher education at community college.
That's why I have been working with President Obama throughout this administration on highlighting that community college is a smart option that delivers real results to help students become who they aspire to be. They have the flexibility and innovation to adapt and meet students' needs, especially those who are juggling jobs and child care. Community colleges 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.
As I've seen with my own students, community colleges offer an affordable route to four-year college degrees and good paying jobs.
AOL.com: What are some misconceptions about community college that you would like to change with this initiative?
Dr. Jill Biden: I often hear that "colleges are not for everyone" or "a community college education isn't high quality" or "community colleges have low graduation rates." I believe the majority of youth and adults across our nation want to attend college and have the opportunity to pursue the American dream. However, a college education is not always seen as realistic, accessible or affordable.
The good news is, community colleges are uniquely positioned to fulfill this responsibility -- whether that means partnering with local employers to prepare students for the workforce, working to make sure classes are flexible for working families, or supporting a seamless transition to a four-year degree. In fact, a third of graduates from public research universities either transferred from America's community colleges, or took community college classes to advance their competitiveness through dual enrollment before entering a four-year college or university.
One of the things that make community colleges so special is they do not pick and choose their students -- they work with all students. Many community college students are older, working, have families -- and many attend part-time. Because of the flexibility that community colleges afford, many students do not have to choose between an education and fulfilling other responsibilities -- they can do both. For the students who do attend part-time that often means they need longer to earn their credits and complete their degrees.
Heads Up America seeks to dispel these misconceptions and promote communities and states that have already made a community college education free – and therefore, a viable option - for all responsible students.
AOL.com: As a community college professor, what were your students' reactions when President Obama announced the America's College Promise proposal? How did their reactions play into your commitment to kick-starting Heads Up America?
Dr. Jill Biden: Last year, a student of mine said she had seen me on TV with First Lady Michelle Obama. My student said to her mother, "Mom! Mom! That's my English teacher!" And her mother said, "That's not your teacher, that's the Second Lady." Most of my students don't know I have two jobs. But they do know that in the classroom, my first priority is to them, and they are a major part of the reason why I wanted to be part of the launch of Heads Up America campaign. We need to ensure that students, like my own, don't get priced out of higher education.
AOL.com: In a recent interview you said that 'women who are interested in pursuing bachelors and masters degrees - especially in STEM fields - benefit from starting at a community college.' Why is this the case, particularly in fields that are notorious for gender and diversity gaps? Are there other fields of study at community colleges that you think get overlooked or underestimated?
Dr. Jill Biden: Women who are interested in pursuing bachelor's and master's degrees — especially in STEM fields — benefit from starting at a community college. They offer an affordable education, with flexible schedules and degrees close to home. Women who earn a certificate or degree from a community college, especially in STEM-related field, will be ready to move into a good-paying job in the growing global economy. Community colleges also offer mentorship and support that goes far beyond the classroom.
AOL.com: Can you share some examples of student success stories? How have you seen a community college education change the lives of students and their families for the better?
Dr. Jill Biden: A lot of people probably didn't know until recently that Tom Hanks went to a community college. In fact he credits the faculty at Chabot College with his success. NASA's first female shuttle Commander, Eileen Collins, graduated from Corning Community College. Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers attended Butte College before transferring to a four-year university. And Bill Swanson graduated from Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California. He went on to become the internationally renowned CEO and Chairman of Raytheon. Today, he is giving back to community colleges by serving on the College Promise Advisory Board of our campaign.
As a community college professor for over twenty years, I've seen the determination, resilience and dedication of countless students. Regardless of circumstances, they show up. They work hard. They believe anything is possible. I am profoundly moved by their resolve to learn, and their quest to make a better life for themselves and their families.
AOL.com: What are some of the tangible results you hope to see from Heads Up America within the next year?
Dr. Jill Biden: Over the next year, Heads Up America will work to create a national environment that celebrates community colleges. We will continue building public awareness about the educational and economic need for free community college education. We want people to share with friends and family how they have benefited from a community college education by telling their stories through social media and using #HeadsUpAmerica. I also encourage everyone to join the movement by visiting www.HeadsUpAmerica.us.
This important work is also taking place on community college campuses. In fact, this fall, more than eighty Heads Up America open house events are taking place on community college campuses in over fifteen states across the country. Students, faculty, community leaders, and others are coming together to demonstrate and celebrate the value these campuses add to their communities.
I hope to see more communities and states follow the lead of places like Tennessee, Minnesota and Oregon, Kalamazoo, Philadelphia, and Long Beach by enacting College Promise programs that will cover tuition and fees for all responsible students. These efforts are bipartisan. They include voices from across the political and professional spectrum. This is because Americans understand the need for the kind of affordable and accessible higher education that community colleges provide. These opportunities will lead to a better and smarter America.
AOL.com: What should the top priorities of the next administration be? What battles that have yet to be fought still need a champion?
Dr. Jill Biden: Our administration has worked tirelessly to ensure that affordable and quality educational opportunities are accessible to all Americans. 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.
For the past seven years, we have worked to highlight the importance of community colleges to America's future. We invested two billion dollars into community colleges, to strengthen partnerships between community colleges and employers to give students the opportunity to learn the skills they need to move into jobs that already exist in their communities.
We believe all students -- new and returning -- should be able to graduate, ready for the new economy, without the burden of debt. So, earlier this year, President Obama announced his plan inspired -- by Republican Governor Bill Haslam's successful Tennessee Promise and Chicago's Star Scholarship -- to lower the cost of community college to zero.
Our administration recognizes the value of community colleges, and investing in them. The next administration must build on this work and continue to make accessibility and affordability of higher education a priority for all Americans.
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