In summary

As Miguel Cardona prepares to take the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, community colleges can provide a path forward.

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By Eloy Ortiz Oakley, Special to CalMatters

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of the California Community Colleges and a member of the University of California Board of Regents, Eoakley@cccco.edu.

Now that President Joe Biden has tapped Miguel Cardona to lead the U.S. Department of Education, the wounded condition in which now-departed Secretary Betsy DeVos has left the department needs resolution, from the student loan debacle to attempts to discriminate over emergency pandemic aid for college students.

As Cardona prepares to take the helm, exactly where should the Department of Education look for a clear path forward to a healthy and equitable COVID-19 recovery?

Look no further than America’s community colleges. Americans of all backgrounds and all parts of the country rely on community colleges in response to nearly every crisis that has come along. They are training the nurses and first responders fighting this pandemic, and they are adapting to educate a workforce for the post-COVID-19 economy.

Many of the challenges that Cardona will face are challenges that community colleges have been taking on for years. 

Much has been made about the learning loss students are experiencing due to the interruption of in-person instruction. Because community colleges accept the top 100% of students, they enroll students right out of high school as well as students who have not been in a classroom for a decade or more. After serving in the Army and then working in the civilian world, I enrolled in community college with eight years of learning loss from the time I left high school.

Many of our students come to college with similar learning loss because they need to work right out of high school, did not have access to quality schools growing up or may even be formerly incarcerated. Community colleges understand how to get students on track and eliminate any learning loss that they arrived with.

If we tap community colleges in support of K-12 students that have had their education interrupted, we can ensure that any amount of learning loss does not become a brick wall that stops students from attending and succeeding in college. Community college faculty and education leaders can support the Department of Education in addressing this challenge.

Many policymakers are concerned that COVID-19 has interrupted the opportunity for many low-income students and students of color from attending college. Community colleges offer solutions here as well.

Community colleges remain the gateway to higher education for the majority of Americans, including those without high school diplomas in some states. Each year thousands of students who could not go to the college or university of their choice out of high school transfer to great colleges and universities after attending community college and do as well if not better than students admitted as freshman.

Many community colleges, like those in California, have eliminated flawed standardized placement exams that historically negatively impacted students of color.

Community colleges have moved to more accurate placement methods because standardized exams, like those created by the College Board and ACT, tell us more about which zip code a student lives in rather than their talent.

When it comes to workforce education, community colleges bring experience – and industry partners – to the table. We know how to re-skill and get Americans back to work, especially since the high school diploma is no longer the gateway to a livable-wage paying job.

Whether we agree or not, the new standard for job readiness is a post-secondary credential, and community colleges can create opportunities for new high school graduates as well as working learners. We need to invest in community colleges and ensure that more people have access to quality, affordable higher education.

Preparing America’s workforce for a post-pandemic economic recovery rooted in equity will be key to our nation bouncing back for Main Street Americans, not just Wall Street Americans.

There are myriad examples in community colleges that demonstrate how to erase the line between high school and college, and create clear pathways to post-secondary credentials that have market value.

Cardona would be well served to look to America’s community colleges for the know-how and leadership that it will take to Build Back Better.

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Eloy Ortiz Oakley has also written about how online infrastructure investment is vital for community college students, veterans earning degrees and higher ed being a key to the future.

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