President-elect Joe Biden, if you're listening, I urge you to select your secretary of education from the ranks of our nation's community colleges. There will be pressure for you to choose a former schoolteacher, a union leader or someone who knows their way around Washington, D.C. But if your administration is to be truly committed to transforming education, tackling the affordability issue, and closing the so-called achievement gap between white and minority students, you need to select a candidate with community-college expertise.
There are no shortages of outstanding candidates for the education secretary post, including Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges; Charlene Dukes, a past chairwoman of the AACC who recently retired as president of Prince George's Community College in Maryland; and Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, the nation's leading non-governmental organization pushing for reforms to improve student success, especially for low-income students of color.
There are many reasons why selecting a leader from the ranks of community colleges makes sense. For one, the community college is a uniquely American idea that has been around for nearly 100 years. Instead of focusing on elite higher education, community colleges are more democratic in the sense that they feature open admission, which means anyone with a high-school diploma can attend; opportunities for high-school dropouts to obtain an equivalency degree; dual enrollment for high-school students wanting to take college-credit courses; low tuition; and sensitivity to their states' and communities' workforce needs.
Community colleges are also strategically located in our hierarchy of public education, providing their leaders with a unique perspective on the full range of primary and secondary schooling as well as higher ed. K-12 systems, on the other hand, must concern themselves more narrowly, with helping students matriculate through a system that often begins with preschool and ends with high-school graduation. Their leaders often have to address a myriad of problems associated with running large urban systems affected by poverty, disciplinary issues and gross underfunding.
Four-year colleges and universities cherry-pick the best academically prepared students while ignoring others. Further, many educators from four-year institutions operate in a bubble and are seemingly more concerned with external funding from governmental agencies and deep-pocket donor stakeholders than on student learning outcomes. Community colleges, by contrast, accept all students and try to improve their educational outcomes regardless of their academic preparation. The majority of Black and Latino students in higher education today are enrolled in community colleges, making them among the most diverse institutions in America.
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