Community colleges need their own assistant secretary in Biden's administration
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With the recent nomination of Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaHouse lawmakers roll out legislation to protect schools against hackers Education Department says anti-trans discrimination prohibited by Title IX Education Department erasing debt of students defrauded at for-profit college MORE for secretary of Education, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenObama: Ensuring democracy 'continues to work effectively' keeps me 'up at night' New Jersey landlords prohibited from asking potential tenants about criminal records Overnight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE is demonstrating how personnel decisions may be the clearest indication of an incoming administration’s priorities for immediate action. Cardona’s laudable background as a public school teacher and superintendent signals the priority that K-12 education will get in Biden’s Cabinet.

But Biden’s most notable education promises during his campaign weren’t around K-12 reform. While his competitors for the Democratic nomination proposed huge “free college” proposals that would have benefited upper and lower income students alike, candidate Biden opted for a less grand, more targeted investment of $50 billion to make community colleges accessible to working people for whom shorter-term, industry-connected training could have an immediate impact on their livelihoods.

If Biden is serious about acting on his promise to open the doors of our nation’s community colleges to working families most impacted by the current recession, then he needs to nominate an experienced community college leader to champion that effort.

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Besides nominations for traditional Cabinet positions, all incoming presidents designate new leadership in their administrations to oversee important issues that transcend the structure of the existing federal bureaucracy. For example, Biden created a new position of Covid response czar and named former OMB Director Jeff Zients to ensure cross-agency coordination on the Biden administration’s health response to the pandemic.

After taming the virus, the most crucial issue facing the Biden presidency will be re-employing the more than 25 million Americans who are out-of-work or have left the workforce completely because of Covid. Some of these workers will eventually be able to get back into the jobs they lost. But many of them — particularly lower-income workers and workers of color previously employed in now devastated sectors like retail, food service and hospitality — will likely have to re-train for new, hopefully even better-paying jobs in other expanding industries.

To harness our higher education system to be part of the economic recovery effort, Biden should update the org chart at the Department of Education by appointing a community college leader to serve as a newly created assistant secretary of Community Colleges. That assistant secretary should report to Secretary Cardona, if confirmed, but more importantly should also be directly involved with leaders from other agencies — like Department of Labor — to ensure that our nation’s more than 940 community colleges are primed to work with local industry to put millions of unemployed Americans into family-supporting jobs and good careers that will sustain them in the post-Covid economy.

This change in the Education Department’s leadership structure would not just help with the current recovery. It would also address a long-standing equity issue in our federal higher education policies which have disproportionately supported full-time students pursuing four-year degrees at high-cost universities, while relegating millions of working adults at community colleges to second-class status. These “non-traditional” working students represent nearly 70 percent of the people taking college courses in this country, yet they receive only a fraction of the federal support for full-time students. Also, the shorter-term, industry-connected certificate programs where community colleges have excelled in recent years compared to four-year institutions don’t qualify for federal Pell Grant assistance.

Community colleges are often the most accessible, close-to-home equalizer in higher education for low-income and working-class Americans. Biden surely recognizes this. His campaign promise to invest $50 billion in workforce training is the exact right initiative for the current economic crisis. It’s not only people without any postsecondary training that are looking to community colleges for a path out of this recession, but also increasing numbers of college graduates with bachelor degrees. And unlike traditional universities, community colleges actually embrace being held accountable for the employment outcomes of their students and are willing to make that information public to workers and industry alike.

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It has always been difficult for the current assistant secretary of the Office of Postsecondary Education, who must attend to the priorities of our nation’s elite institutions and flagship universities, to also bring comparable attention to the needs of community colleges and their working students.

At a time of crisis such as this, Biden needs to be able to look to his own assistant secretary of Community Colleges with the expertise and focus necessary to help those institutions and their industry partners re-employ millions of Americans displaced by the pandemic.

Andy Van Kleunen is CEO of National Skills Coalition. Follow him on Twitter @AndyVKNSC