Mastering the art of storytelling to drive change.

OUR First Lady: Dr. Jill Biden’s case for community college just might transform America

01 / 21 / 2021

Watching Dr. Jill Biden become America’s First Lady this week launched my mind back in time — and then catapulted it straight on into the future. As I tell you this story, it’ll soon become clear why. 

Fifteen years ago, when I first testified in front of the Illinois House Higher Education Committee, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Egged on by a few friendly legislators, I drove four hours to Springfield to make the case that the state should be financially supporting the community college students we were championing at One Million Degrees. 

That day, I watched college president after college president rise and confidently express why their four-year institutions should retain their multi-million dollar annual grants. As a co-founder of a nonprofit program that was barely a year old, I felt ridiculous by comparison. Like Peter Pan in a suit.  

But when I finally stood up to make our case, something instantly grabbed hold of me. Before I knew it, I wasn’t asking for a slice of the pie — I was demanding it. I explained to lawmakers that no matter where they sat on the political spectrum, none of them should want to see thousands and thousands of students not completing their degrees. But that’s just what was happening: Community college students — who represent more than 60 percent of all college students in Illinois — were dropping out at staggering rates.

Even worse, as fiduciaries of Illinois tax dollars, I told them they were getting a terrible return on investment on the millions in Monetary Award Program (MAP) dollars they were already sending to students. And that with every individual who didn’t get their degree, the glaring skills shortage in Illinois’s workforce only grew.  

I wasn’t sure that all of these legislators understood the real challenges that so many hard-working community college students confront — especially in Chicago. Some had to enroll in remedial courses. Some were working parents. Some could not afford both tuition and books. Some were even experiencing homelessness.

It wasn’t the students who were doing the failing. It was our institutions that were failing them.

I explained that OMD took a 360-degree approach to empower our scholars by providing last-dollar “gap funding,” academic advising, coaching, and tutoring when necessary. I then told them that our scholars were succeeding at nearly three times the overall rate in Illinois. 

The General Assembly and the governor saw fit to grant us $250K. It wasn’t a lot, but it helped us to launch a new cohort of students at Prairie State College. It also set the stage for us to increase our requests year over year. 

One Million Degrees Scholars with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the 2019 OMD Degrees of Impact Gala.


A decade later, in May of 2017, an aide to former House Speaker Mike Madigan’s called me and asked me if I would come down to Springfield over Memorial Day weekend to testify in front of a special session. I hadn’t done it in a few years, as our staff had taken the baton by then. But the aide told me that all of the state “bridge programs” that helped low-income students were “at-risk.” He said that in order to save them, he needed a few folks like me to show up and sing. 

When the committee chair welcomed me and thanked me for taking “time away from my family” to testify on a holiday, I saw my opening to go full heartstrings. I told committee members that I didn’t have kids; that the students at One Million Degrees were my family, and so I was glad to be there. I laid it on thick, yet I was telling the truth. 

I was reminded of that Memorial Day in Springfield this week as I watched America’s new First Lady participate in all of the inaugural festivities. Dr. Jill Biden has dedicated three decades of her career to teaching community college students and advocating on their behalf. She speaks lovingly of her students as if they were her own kids, and she calls community college “America’s best-kept secret.” She feels so strongly about it that she’s going to continue teaching at Northern Virginia Community College over the next four years. Dr. Biden will be the first First Lady to ever hold a paid job outside of the White House. 

It is fair to say that to all of us at One Million Degrees, Jill Biden is a hero. But not only because of her past efforts on community college. Dr. Biden’s influence on future policy can already be discerned from the work she did on the campaign in helping to construct The Biden Plan For Education Beyond High School. Its two major objectives sound like orchestra music to OMD’s ears:  

  • Providing two years of community college or other high-quality training program without debt for any hard-working individual looking to learn and improve their skills to keep up with the changing nature of work…Individuals will also be able to use these funds to pursue training programs that have a track record of participants completing their programs and securing good jobs.
  • Creating a grant program to assist community colleges in improving their students’ success…Reforms could include academic and career advising services, dual enrollment, credit articulation agreements…The Biden plan will also help community colleges around the country scale successful programs to help a larger number of students. 

Eureka. Hallelujah. And thank you. 

Dr. Biden knows full-well from her long career in teaching that hard-working community college students just need a shot. They just need a level playing field to reach their fullest potential. It is the same ethos we hold at One Million Degrees. 

At center, OMD CEO Paige Ponder. Left to right, founding Board members Rose Lizarraga, Michael Episcope, Michael Golden, David Scherer, Thania Panopoulos, and Connie Mixon.


Now, you may be asking: Won’t this cost a lot? How will the administration ever be able to persuade “deficit hawk” legislators in red states to get on board? Isn’t this a blue state kind of thing? 

No. Logic and results have a way of moving public opinion and politics. 

Seventeen states already have adopted programs that make two-year college and certificate programs tuition-free, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana Montana, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. 

In 2014, the “Tennessee Promise” program was passed by a GOP legislature and signed by Republican Governor Bill Haslam. High school graduates were offered two years of tuition-free community college or technical school. Three years later it was expanded to include adults returning to school. 

Tennessee’s program provides the kind of last-dollar “gap funding” that One Million Degrees does. But unlike OMD, which has to raise mostly private money every day to fund our roughly 1,000 scholars per year, Tennessee can help every student in the state by drawing on its reserve lottery money.

Tennessee is a deep red state with two conservative senators and an electorate that rejected President Biden by 23 points. But viewed through a pragmatic lens, strengthening community college has nothing to do with partisan politics. In fact, 10 years after I made that first economic argument in front of the Illinois legislature, Governor Haslam made a similar case about Tennessee’s workforce: 

“I can’t emphasize enough to anybody who’s not in the middle of these economic development conversations how much it has changed — literally it is all about workforce development. You could look out and say, ‘We’re really close to having a big mismatch and jobs are going to go somewhere else and we’re going to have a lot of people here who won’t have jobs.’ So that’s the primary emphasis, that was the primary motivating factor.”

You see, this is an issue where you can take your pick of reasons to support it. Any way you go, you can’t lose: Empowering individuals and seeing them develop their personal potential — check. Teaching Americans to fish so that they can be self-reliant for a lifetime; not needing additional state assistance — check. Building a workforce that will serve local communities, which is one of the reasons community colleges were founded in the first place — check. 

Win, win, win. In Tennessee, it’s already paying off.

To be clear: there is a difference between “tuition-free” and “debt-free.” The latter allows funding to flow for the kinds of critical soft supports that One Million Degrees provides to scholars. 

Dr. Biden was instrumental during the Obama years in championing tuition-free community college. But in this new administration, as outlined in the plan, she and President Biden will be pushing for “debt-free.” 

After 15 years of honing our program at One Million Degrees, we’ve got the formula down. OMD Scholars graduate at 2.5 times the rate of their community college peers, and transfer to bachelor’s degree programs, and/or transition directly into the workforce. Preliminary results of a randomized controlled trial by the University of Chicago Inclusive Economy Lab have shown a 23 percent increase in college enrollment and 47 percent increase in reenrollment from one semester to the next as a full-time student.

It’s an exciting time for us at One Million Degrees. We’re eager to share our secret sauce for success with community college systems and students all across the country. The program is ripe to scale. So you can easily understand how thrilled our entire OMD community has been to watch Dr. Biden ascend to the Office of the First Lady. The position does not technically carry government power, but the public perch it provides is arguably even more potent.

No matter which specific pieces of the president’s plan we see Dr. Biden pushing over the next four years, the OMD family will be cheering. And standing by in the wings to help in any way that we can.   

Dr. Jill Biden has helped countless students during her career, both inside and outside of the classroom. And from the looks of the higher education goals that she and the president have prioritized in his new administration, the difference she’s going to make in people’s lives may soon rise to a whole different order of magnitude.    

Giving every American student a fair shot at being rewarded for their hard work is just the right thing to do. The welcome by-product of this mission is that their personal development and attainment of a degree only serve to strengthen our communities, and, by extension, our country. 

Sometimes, the “magic solution” has little to do with magic. Sometimes, it’s just logic and some polishing. And once in a while, it’s right in front of you. Just needs a push. Just needs a little leadership. 

Ensuring that community colleges are no longer the “best-kept secret in America” — but instead treated as a national resource with unlimited potential — will take an intensive effort to educate the public. 

Our First Lady is the perfect person to lead this effort, at the perfect time.