By Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden
Whenever we have the opportunity to travel to a community college together — as we are today — we feel truly at home.
And that’s not just because one of us teaches full-time at one.
It’s because, simply put, these are our people. We come from middle-class families in small towns in different parts of Pennsylvania. Like the President and the First Lady, we graduated with debt. So did our kids. Spent years paying it off. Growing up, and since then, we’ve seen firsthand the power that community colleges have to change lives. To change entire communities, in fact.
We like to say that community college is America’s best-kept secret.
Our country’s more than 1,100 community colleges educate more than 7 million Americans. They provide an opportunity to pursue a quality, affordable college education and earn a degree or credential. They offer pathways to four-year universities and graduate school for students who go on to become doctors, lawyers, and teachers.
Our community colleges teach students of all ages to code. Teach them to fabricate sheet metal. Turn them into dental hygienists and electricians and cybersecurity technicians.
They’re truly the backbone of our nation’s postsecondary education and training system. So when we talk about providing high-quality, affordable pathways for all Americans to get the knowledge and cutting-edge skills employers seek — community colleges are simply where that happens.
Today, as we head to the Community College of Philadelphia, this Administration is announcing a new $100 million investment to create and expand tuition-free education and training at community colleges.
What does that mean, and why does that matter? Consider an example we saw on one of our community college visits.
It takes place in Rochester, New York.
With companies like Kodak and Xerox, Rochester has always been home to the optics industry. But, as optics technology has evolved, older companies have downsized and new companies have risen. As a result, jobs in the optics industry have changed — and so have the skills necessary to fill those jobs.
So, Monroe Community College in Rochester went out and surveyed businesses in the region to understand what skills they needed. And the college partnered with over 200 local businesses to design new programs and courses that prepare students for actual open jobs in Rochester. At one local company, we found that almost half of the 200 employees had completed or were enrolled in a program at Monroe. Some entry-level positions at the more than 50 optics businesses in and around Rochester pay nearly $60,000 a year. These students earned an immediate ticket to the middle class.
Think about that.
Extrapolate it to the whole country. Consider that there are job openings for more than 1.3 million IT professionals nationwide. Many of those jobs do not require a four-year degree. Community colleges are the vehicles for gaining these skills.
There’s a reason why the United States of America has led the world for the past century and beyond. It’s because we’ve had the best education system in the world. We leapt ahead of every other nation because we were the first to have 12 free years of education. No matter your background. No matter how much money your family had. Every single American, as a matter of right, has 12 free years of public education.
So should be the case with education beyond high school. We’ve got to stay ahead of the global curve. Let’s make two years of community college free to anyone willing to work for it.
Here’s how it would work:
Students get to attend school tuition free, but they have to keep up their grades and continue to advance toward graduation. Community colleges provide the quality education and training students need to find good jobs or make sure credits are transferrable to four-year schools — which could cut college tuition for those students in half.
And these students can also keep their Pell Grants, and use them toward other expenses, like transportation, which is a huge cost for a lot of students.
That’s a game changer. All told, 9 million Americans would benefit.
We know that in the next five years, two-thirds of all jobs will require some form of higher education. In this way, we truly can’t afford not to make community college free for those willing to work for it. It’s essential to our economic future.
To date, at least 27 new states, communities, and individual community colleges have created their own free community college programs, supported by over $70 million in new investments that will serve nearly 40,000 community college students. One such program in Tennessee is seeing 80 percent of its students come back the next semester — a far-higher-than-average retention rate for community colleges.
As two middle-class kids from Pennsylvania, we’d like to see that continue.
Horace Mann called education the “great equalizer.”
That’s because, at the end of the day, “an education” isn’t about a diploma. It’s about building a foundation for yourself. A pathway into the middle class. The very best way to create a better life for your families.
And throughout our careers, whether on the floor of the Senate or in a classroom, that is what we have both believed. It’s how we were raised, and what we’ve sought to instill in our own children.
Everyone deserves a shot at a good education. Every last one of us.