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Biden’s Best Choice for Secretary of Education

The president-elect should look to the ranks of community-college leaders for filling this critical Cabinet post. Community colleges occupy a strategic position that gives them a unique perspective on education at all levels.

College students studying in a classroom.
(Photo: TNS)
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.

But there is even a stronger argument for a community-college leader serving as secretary of education. The Biden-Harris platform on education emphasizes the importance of technical education to our nation's economic recovery. Community colleges offer two distinctly different pathways for achieving this: One is for students looking to earn two-year liberal arts degrees so they can transfer to a four-year college upon graduation. The other pathway is for the almost 50 percent of students who attend community colleges to earn technical degrees or certificates in fields like automotive technology, movie production set design, practical nursing and welding.

These career pathways closely follow state labor departments' data showing shortages in specific occupational categories. By receiving post-secondary training in these technical fields, students are virtually guaranteed to find jobs in their respective fields, and usually ones that pay higher than the area's mean salaries. For most of the years I served as president of Georgia Piedmont Technical College, from 2012 to 2018, our job-placement rate for graduates was nearly 100 percent.

The choice of a community college president for the nation's top post in education would provide an additional benefit: an opportunity to bring a federal focus on the improvements that are needed within community colleges. First, community colleges hire too many adjunct professors and pay them low wages. Adjuncts made up about 65 percent of my teaching faculty, and this is about average for community colleges nationally. We need to invest more in community colleges so they can hire more full-time faculty members.

Then there is the problem of desegregating the ranks of leadership within the community- and technical-college sector. The student bodies at most community colleges are extremely diverse, but in many system offices and individual colleges the leadership and administration are not. Making matters worse, Black and other minority educators complain that when they do break into the ranks of senior leadership they often face inhospitable environments, according to members of the Presidents' Round Table, a caucus of Black community college presidents that has been around since 1983.

A leader at the top of the nation's department of education, particularly from an educationally underserved community, could shine a light on some of these lingering problems while serving as a role model for youth and a symbol of educational achievement.

Mr. President-elect, given what you say you want to accomplish with educational reform and your desire to revive our pandemic-crushed economy, I believe that selecting a secretary of education from the ranks of the nation's community college leadership would serve your administration — and more importantly, the nation — particularly well.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Jabari Simama, Ph.D., is a seasoned educator, executive, and former elected leader, having served for decades in Georgia and as its liaison in Washington, D.C., and demonstrating a deep commitment to diversity, equity, and cultural competence. Educated at Harvard, Emory and Atlanta universities, Dr. Simama is the former president and CEO of Georgia Piedmont Technical College and chief of staff and deputy COO of DeKalb County, Ga. Earlier in his career, Simama was elected to the Atlanta city council where he served as a councilman from 1987 to 1994. He also worked as a professor, instructor, educator, and producer in academic and industry settings during those years. A prolific writer, he produced and presented a steady catalog of books, journal articles, conference presentations, sponsored publications, and magazine articles. Simama is currently a columnist for Governing.