U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona toured a Community College of Baltimore County campus Monday and spoke with students about the administration’s plan to make college more accessible.
Cardona’s visit follows the Biden administration’s recent unveiling of a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that would make two years of community college free to all Americans and provide child care support for low- and middle-income families.
The education secretary highlighted the Catonsville campus as an example of the plan in action, with its on-site child care center and tuition support program.
“It’s like the American Families Plan if it were alive,” Cardona said after touring the facilities and speaking with students.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, community college enrollment has dipped more than 11% nationally, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Despite that trend, CCBC has slightly exceeded its enrollment goals for the year, according to President Sandra Kurtinitis.
Kurtinitis attributes the college’s success to the creation of a tuition support program earlier this year. About 81% of CCBC students received full or partial tuition during the fall semester, she said.
“We know it works,” Kurtinitis said of the cushion created by the tuition support.
And the American Families Plan would help build on that success by allowing the community college to enroll more students, Kurtinitis said.
Cardona spoke with CCBC students in the transportation technology facility, introducing himself as Miguel and offering a pandemic-friendly elbow bump to each student. He sat down with students to ask questions about how community college helped them overcome hurdles.
Student Shashawna Moody told Cardona that she balances her time studying automotive technology at CCBC while also working for Amazon to support her three kids. The 37-year-old enjoys her classes where she learns how to fix automobiles, but she still has to pay her bills and mortgage.
“I’m juggling three things, but I love this programming,” she said to Cardona.
The education secretary asked Moody what advice she would offer to other adults planning their own paths.
“Take the opportunity,” she said of the community college experience.
Sydney Parks is finishing up her communications studies at CCBC before heading to New York University in the fall. That’s something the 21-year-old said she wouldn’t have been able to do without enrolling at the community college, she told Cardona.
“I didn’t do very well in high school,” Parks said. “But here I had more opportunities and I had more support. I think that’s what makes the difference between a community college and a university.”
Parks relied on a scholarship to attend CCBC and believes that taking on the financial burden of getting a college degree is difficult for Americans.
“Especially during the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of friends who had to stop going to school or had something go wrong,” she said. “If they would have had that financial coverage that I had here, they would have done as well as I did.”
Following the visit, Cardona spoke at the Education Writers Association annual conference, held virtually this year, addressing a wide range of education issues, primarily related to the pandemic and the return to in-person instruction.
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“This is a once in a generation opportunity that we have here,” Cardona said. “Yes, the pandemic was challenging, but we have a tremendous opportunity to set the reset button on things we knew needed fixing long before the pandemic.”
He said he would hope that schools would be prepared to meet the social and emotional needs of learners and become better at connecting families to the “learning process” in a way that isn’t just through the PTA.
Cardona defended the federal education department’s decision to require standardized testing, saying that while it would be employed imperfectly, the data was needed by education policy makers.
“I don’t think there is a teacher in the U.S. that needs the test to tell them how the children are doing,” he said, adding that while the teacher may not need it policymakers do in order to make decisions about how to spend billions of dollars in federal money that is coming this year. “Every little bit of data will help.”
The department has been criticized by those who believe the annual standardized tests given throughout the country should be postponed for a second year because of the lack of testing security and other issues.
Cardona is offering a variety of waivers for states that want a more flexible approach. In Maryland, State Superintendent Karen Salmon backed away from a plan to test this spring after a public outcry. Maryland has asked for a waiver to test in the fall instead.
Cardona said he wants to make sure all students are back in schools in the fall, and thinks all students “do best in the classroom.” Cardona said he did not support an online-only option for every student, but that school systems should maintain a combination of in-person and computer-based learning when the pandemic is over.