Jill Biden Talks about Community Colleges

Jill Biden could have filled her schedule with luncheons and photo ops after her husband became vice president. But as a career English instructor with a doctorate in education, Biden wanted to keep working. She was quickly recruited by Northern Virginia Community College, just outside Washington, and started teaching two days a week. She asked for no special treatment, so the school gave her a small, windowless cubicle just like everyone else. Biden hopes to use her raised profile to advocate for America's community colleges, which she believes are too often underappreciated for the value they offer. She sat down with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone. Excerpts:

Take me inside your notion of America's community colleges as a well-kept secret.
People have not really noticed community colleges, but they are where students really become successful. I don't think a lot of students are aware that community colleges exist.

How did you get into teaching at the community-college level?
I was teaching at a high school. Some friends at the community college kept calling me and saying, "You've got to come." A position opened up to teach English, and I got it. I remember how excited I was. It was so different from the high school in that the students wanted to be there. They paid to be there. It's the point when they realize that they need to be there to be successful.

Then why does the junior-college level of education have such an unfortunate reputation?
Well, it's really a different animal. A lot of students who are 18 or 19 go to college partly for the social aspect of it. At the community college, people's goals are a little different. Their needs are more immediate. It's a whole different atmosphere. When students come to the community college, they're focused. They know what they want to do, and they have a certain amount of time to do it.

With your profile, you could now teach anywhere you wanted; ivies would take you. Why stay in community college?
After we were elected, I got many, many job offers from four-year schools. Everyone said, "Teach at a four-year." I said no, I'm a community-college instructor. We're different from other types of teachers. It's a very nurturing environment. I learn about their lives and their problems. Many times I get an intimate look at their struggles and what they're up against.

Do you try to persuade the vice president and administration officials of the need to focus more on higher education?
Joe hears it every day. [Laughs] I come home from school and talk about what we need. He's immersed in it; he can't get away from it. He knows the stories of my students. I think the administration has begun to answer a lot of those things: helping with financial aid, increasing Pell grants, and making the tuition tax credit available to students. He knows there are a lot of ways they can help. He knows what they need.

What do they need?
Well, [the schools] are starting to get a lot of what they need, and that's money. But it's not just money, it's awareness. People need to realize that community colleges really give you a good education. And they do—that's just a simple fact of it.

How can you help students who want to transfer to four-year schools?
One of the things the community college does is to remediate skills ... to get you to the college level so you can be successful and go even further.

Since becoming second lady, have your students become more attentive, not skipping class as much?
[Laughs] Can I tell you that my students this semester were totally cool with it? My ESL students never mentioned it. In one other class I had, a student raised her hand and asked me about the name Biden, wondering if I was related to the vice president, like a cousin or something. And I said, "Yes, let's go with that." They got the hint.