As first lady, Jill Biden plans to push for debt-free community college

WASHINGTON — Dr. Jill Biden has devoted her life to the field of education, and that won’t change when she becomes first lady next month. According to a source close to her, Biden will advocate for debt-free community college.

Dr. Martha Kanter, who served as under secretary of education in the Obama administration and who has known Biden for more than a decade, said she has worked hard to make debt-free community college a reality.

“That is what she would like to see. We have often talked about community colleges as the unsung heroes,” Kanter said in a conversation with Yahoo News, adding that Biden has strived “to really help people understand the value proposition and the return on investment and why it’s important.”

Along with promoting debt-free community college, Biden plans to champion other aspects of the education platform her husband, President-elect Joe Biden, put forth during his campaign for the White House.

The focus on education is a natural extension of the work she did after her husband was elected vice president in 2008, when, as second lady, she became an outspoken advocate for community colleges. Biden has also spent much of her career teaching at the community college level, and has been an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College since 2009. Prior to taking that position, Biden spent about 15 years at Delaware Technical Community College.

“Teaching has always been more than just a job to her — it’s who she is,” said Biden’s spokesperson, Michael LaRosa.

Jill Biden
Jill Biden makes a campaign appearance on behalf of her husband at the Jeffers Pond Elementary School in Prior Lake, Minn., Sept. 9, 2020. (Nicole Neri/Reuters)

Biden, who holds graduate degrees from West Chester University, Villanova University and the University of Delaware, where she earned her doctorate, has long championed community college. It took her 15 years to finish her own education, including time spent studying at night while raising a family with her husband, who served as a U.S. senator for 36 years.

Biden has often spoken about how her experience in the classroom — and her personal history — shaped her views on education. Her students have included single parents, veterans and refugees. In a 2015 speech before the Community College National Legislative Summit, Biden traced her passion for education to her grandmother, who “taught at an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse.” Biden recalled how she kept her grandmother’s school bell as a treasured heirloom and described the impact she felt from working with students to improve their reading skills.

“Teaching is my life’s work,” Biden said in that address. “I teach because I love seeing the difference that I hope to make in my students’ lives. My goal is to always give them confidence in their own abilities, because I know confidence will carry them well beyond my classroom in whatever they do. As I work hard every day to inspire my students, it is ultimately they who inspire me.”

President-elect Biden himself has emphasized the fact that his academic credentials are far different from the Ivy League diplomas that typically pepper the corridors of power in Washington D.C. He earned an undergraduate degree from a state school, the University of Delaware, and went to law school at Syracuse University. He and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, were the first presidential ticket since 1984 without an Ivy League degree.

During a CNN town hall in his hometown of Scranton, Pa., in September, the former vice president noted that, throughout his life he had encountered people who believed people “must be stupid” if they didn’t have a college degree or Ivy League bona fides.

“What the hell makes you think I need an Ivy League degree to be president?” Biden asked. “Guys like me, the first in my family to go to college … we are as good as anybody else.”

According to Kanter, the former undersecretary of education, Jill Biden’s familiarity with research showing community college has a unique return on investment would make her a “critical voice.” Kanter also cited Biden’s classroom experience.

“She’s ... knowledgeable about the challenges,” Kanter explained. “Why do students leave? Why do they drop out? What are the barriers that we better work much harder and to get out of the way? And I think that’s what she’s going to say.”

Biden’s background in education was quickly put to use during her time as second lady when the country was recovering from the financial crisis.

When President Obama convened experts to identify ways to strengthen the workforce, a source familiar with Obama’s efforts said the experts “realized one of the most effective tools to jumpstart the economy was community colleges,” and “someone said, ‘Wait… isn’t the second lady actually working at one right now?’”

Biden subsequently convened the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges on Oct. 5, 2010, which highlighted community colleges’ role in workforce development and focused on Obama’s goal of raising the numbers of college graduates. Several years later, she crisscrossed the country to promote a community college-to-job-market pipeline program.During her time as second lady, Biden also worked with former first lady Michelle Obama to launch Joining Forces, an initiative that urged Americans to “to rally around service members, veterans, and their families and support them through wellness, education, and employment opportunities.” As first lady, Biden plans to relaunch Joining Forces.

Joe Biden and Jill Biden
Joe and Jill Biden in 2015. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In her new role, Biden is expected to take up other aspects of her husband’s education platform, along with her efforts to advocate for debt-free community college and military families. And in addition to her promise to ensure students — including nontraditional, older learners — can attend community colleges for up to two years without having to dive into their own pockets, Biden has proposed a plan to make all public college and universities tuition-free for students whose families earn less than $125,000, in addition to a suite of education grants with a focus on historically black colleges and universities and institutions dedicated to the Native American community.

Obama had also pushed a plan to make two years of community college free, but it failed to overcome Republican opposition in Congress. President-elect Biden’s proposals will almost certainly face similar hurdles, particularly if Democrats fail to secure a Senate majority in the Georgia runoff elections next month.

As first lady, Biden is unlikely to have an official position in the policy drafting process. A former Biden staffer who worked closely with Biden and requested anonymity to discuss the transition nevertheless said she has an informal but crucial role advising the president-elect.

“She’s been a pretty great sounding board throughout his career. She will have a very ambitious portfolio and I’m sure she’s particularly influential on the education front. She’s got decades of experience there,” said the former staffer, before adding in a shot at the current first lady. “And you’ll never hear her complain about decorating the White House for Christmas.”


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