Dr. Jill Biden is America's first first lady with a doctorate — and the first Professor FLOTUS in history. But how will having Dr. Jill Biden in the White House affect higher education?
Biden earned her doctorate in education from the University of Delaware in 2007. "One of the things I'm most proud of is my doctorate," she said in a Dec. 2020 interview. "I've worked so hard for it."
Throughout her career in higher education, Dr. Biden has focused on the needs of students, the cost of college, and student services to help college students thrive.
In spite of a recent Wall Street Journal editorial that questioned Dr. Biden's credentials, higher education will likely benefit from having a doctor in the White House. Looking back at Dr. Biden's career offers some clues about what her priorities might be as Professor FLOTUS.
Dr. Jill Biden's Doctorate, Dissertation, and Teaching Career
Dr. Jill Biden earned her first teaching degree in 1975, two years before she married President-elect Joe Biden. While Joe ran for office, Jill pursued higher education, eventually earning two master's degrees and a doctorate. She taught in public high schools and at the community college level for decades.
In 2007, at the age of 55, Dr. Biden received her doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Delaware. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the challenge of increasing student retention in community colleges.
Community colleges serve a large share of the country’s non-white undergraduates:
- 56% of Native Americans
- 52% of Hispanics
- 43% of African-Americans
- 40% of Asian/Pacific Islanders
Biden's dissertation takes on a major issue in higher education. Community colleges struggle with retention. In fact, only 40% of community college students earn a degree within six years.
In her dissertation, Biden analyzed the problem of retention from the point of view of students' needs. In addition to academic needs, Biden identified psychological, social, and physical needs that affect retention. Community college students differ from four-year college students in ways that shape their educational experience, Biden notes. With student bodies that include more low-income students, more students with children, and more students who are balancing school with a job, community colleges face more challenges to retention.
By highlighting unmet student needs in her research, Biden offered practical solutions to increase retention. She pointed to the need for mentorship opportunities focused on first-generation students and students of color. Biden also recommended developing wellness centers to connect students to their community colleges.
Biden's research focuses on Delaware Technical and Community College, where she taught for 15 years. After earning a doctorate and becoming Second Lady, Biden began working at Northern Virginia Community College, where she taught in the English department.
For decades, Biden has focused on community colleges, in both her career and her research. She has also used her position to publicly advocate for community colleges — something that she will likely continue as first lady.
Community Colleges in the Higher Education System
Community colleges play a critical role in the higher education system. As Dr. Biden notes in her dissertation, "The community college classroom is unlike any other classroom in America. Diversity, rather than homogeneity, is the norm."
Almost half of all college students attend a community college. Compared to white students, more Black and Hispanic students start their college careers at community colleges, and over half of low-income college students attend community colleges.
For many students, community college is a gateway to a bachelor's degree. Undergraduates can meet their general education requirements by completing an associate degree at a community college and then transferring into a four-year college or university. In fact, 80% of community college students plan to transfer to earn a bachelor's degree.
In addition to academic degrees, most community colleges offer vocational and technical programs, workforce development training, and remedial education. Dr. Jill Biden's teaching, for instance, has focused on remedial English classes to help incoming college students prepare for higher education.
Community colleges also cost significantly less than four-year institutions. On average, public two-year colleges charged $3,700 per year in tuition and fees in 2018/2019. In contrast, public four-year colleges cost $9,200, and private four-year colleges cost $35,800.
In 2012, Dr. Biden spoke about the diverse needs served by community colleges. "What I've seen at every community college along the way is the story of hope," Biden said, pointing out the benefits of community colleges for busy adults interested in advancing their careers or transitioning into new fields.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit community colleges particularly hard. In fall 2020, freshman enrollment at community colleges dropped 19%. In previous economic depressions, colleges have seen enrollment numbers increase — but the uncertainty around the pandemic has had the opposite effect.
Lower enrollment numbers mean less money for already strapped community college systems across the country. Ambitious investments in wellness centers, advisors, and mentors may face significant budget cutbacks in the coming years. The numbers may rebound after the pandemic, but for now, community colleges face an uncertain future in the country's higher education system.
How Will Dr. Jill Biden Influence the Education System?
As second lady, Dr. Jill Biden used her position to bring attention to community colleges. Dr. Biden will likely continue that focus as first lady.
If she does take an active role in higher education policy as first lady, Dr. Biden will likely focus on issues like college readiness and retention, which have defined her academic career.
For example, in her dissertation, she identified many barriers to staying in college. "Students must work to pay for school and also to support themselves and their families," Biden wrote. "Stress, anxiety, and depression set in when the student succumbs to feeling overwhelmed. The first sacrifice has to be school; hence, student retention rates skyrocket if there are no safeguards in place to help students cope with all they are trying to handle."
In the decade after Biden earned her doctorate, the cost of attending a two-year college increased 40%. Two major recessions and a pandemic have also made it harder than ever for students to afford school or balance college with their other responsibilities.
She has already influenced the incoming administration's higher education plan, which cites Dr. Biden's experience in higher education while detailing plans to invest in community colleges, make public colleges tuition-free for 8 out of 10 families, expand loan forgiveness programs, and double the maximum Pell Grant award.
College costs are a priority for the new first lady. In November 2020, Dr. Biden spoke about her participation in College Promise, a campaign to make community college free for all students. She promised, "Joe and I will stand by you in those efforts."
Dr. Biden could also promote increasing Pell Grants or forgiving student loans as a way to lower the cost of higher education. She has already influenced the incoming administration's higher education plan, which cites Dr. Biden's experience in higher education while detailing plans to invest in community colleges, make public colleges tuition-free for 8 out of 10 families, expand loan forgiveness programs, and double the maximum Pell Grant award.
"While it's obviously too early to know how things will play out, campus leaders are understandably excited about having Dr. Biden in such a position, particularly since she has done so much to enhance understanding and appreciation of the colleges," says David Baime of the American Association of Community Colleges.
And Dr. Biden isn't going to leave the classroom any time soon. She plans to continue teaching at Northern Virginia Community College while first lady. Rider University communications professor Myra Gutin says, "It's a big deal that she's continuing the profession she was trained for, separate from her identity as first lady."
By continuing her work in the classroom, Dr. Biden will have a first-hand view into student experiences and challenges at community colleges. Thanks to her life-long and continuing advocacy for students, Dr. Jill Biden will bring an important perspective to the White House.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
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