What Jill Biden’s Dissertation Reveals About Her Approach to Higher...

Higher Education

What Jill Biden’s Dissertation Reveals About Her Approach to Higher Education

By Jeffrey R. Young     Nov 20, 2020

What Jill Biden’s Dissertation Reveals About Her Approach to Higher Education

It turns out that Jill Biden, the presumptive First Lady, has thought deeply about community colleges. In fact, she wrote her dissertation at the University of Delaware about how to improve retention at two-year colleges.

So what did she conclude? And what does it say about her thinking on higher education, as she prepares to move into the White House?

First, it’s safe to say that Jill Biden has closer ties to community colleges than any previous First Lady. She started her own higher education career at a community college—enrolling in Brandywine Junior College in Philadelphia before transferring to the University of Delaware. She has taught in community colleges for years, first in Delaware and more recently at Northern Virginia Community College just outside of Washington, DC. And she has said she plans to continue teaching even after her husband Joe becomes president. (While Donald Trump continues to dispute the election results, experts and a growing number of prominent Republican lawmakers say that it is unlikely that Trump’s legal challenges or political maneuvers will change the outcome of the Nov. 3 election.)

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Joe Biden even gave a shout-out to college educators in his acceptance speech. “For American educators, this is a great day for you all. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House,” he said.

But back to the dissertation. Jill Biden’s focus area when pursuing her Doctor of Education degree was Educational Leadership. And she chose to present her research in the form of an “executive position paper,” which according to the program’s website “identifies a problem of significance to you and your organization, analyzes the problem thoroughly, and develops a feasible plan to solve the problem.”

The organization she chose to focus her paper on was Delaware Technical & Community College, where she was an English and writing instructor at the time of her graduate study. The title of her paper: “Student Retention at the Community College: Meeting Students’ Needs.”

In addition to giving a review of the literature, she interviewed and surveyed students and faculty, as well as faculty advisors, about their experiences and the challenges they faced regarding retention.

“Several themes regarding students’ needs have emerged,” she wrote. Her recommendations boiled down to holistic approach that included:

  • A mandatory study skills course to help better prepare students for college-level work
  • Better academic advising
  • A student center or other central place to gather with other students.
  • A psychologist to “administer educational testing and offer counseling.”
  • And a wellness center.

“Delaware Tech has the capacity to be so much better than it is presently,” she wrote. “The key to student retention is a coordinated, cohesive effort by administration, faculty, staff, and students. A student retention plan requires diligence and effort—but most of all, leadership.”

As part of her literature review, Biden interviewed prominent experts in student retention. One of them was Vincent Tinto, now an emeritus professor of education at Syracuse University, who is a prominent expert on retention and author of “Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action.”

Tinto says he knew little about the project at the time, but that he answered Biden’s questions by phone. “I had no idea what the dissertation was going to become,” he told EdSurge. “I get so many of these requests, and I never want to turn them down I talk to so many graduate students.”

Reading through the dissertation now, he says, his first reaction is “Amen.” He said that her paper gives a practical roadmap to solving key problems that had not yet been fully articulated at the time. “Most of the things she identified are the ones that need to and have now started to be addressed,” he said.

And he praised her focus on thinking deeply about the experience of students of all backgrounds and experience levels. “The first two pages of her dissertation, where she describes her classroom and students, speaks volumes about her commitment to diversity,” he said.

The passage he refers to reads:

“The community college classroom is unlike any other classroom in America. Diversity, rather than homogeneity, is the norm. In an average-sized class of twenty students at Delaware Tech, for example, most of the seats will be filled with young students who have just graduated from high school. The majority of these will be female. At least five seats will be filled with middle-aged men and women who have lost their jobs due to downsizing and/or outsourcing. One or two seats will be filled with students who have graduated from a GED program. Some seats will hold older women whose children have just entered college – now these women are taking the opportunity to earn college degrees themselves. Three quarters of the class will be Caucasian; one quarter of the class will be African American; one seat will hold a Latino; and the remaining seats will be filled with students of Asian descent or non-resident aliens. At least one quarter of the students will have children – most of them will be single mothers. Some will be the first in their families to attend college.”

It is clear that Jill Biden plans to advocate for community colleges as she enters the White House. Just this week, she spoke at a symposium led by the College Promise Career Institute, a nonprofit that has an effort called College Progress that aims to make community college free.

“Community colleges fuel our industries, and we need an educated skilled trained workforce to lead the world in a 21st century economy,” she said at the event. “This isn’t a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, it’s an American issue.”

Tinto, the Syracuse professor, said that he hopes that Biden continues to keep the issue of retention in mind as she furthers her advocacy. “I would personally hope that one of the things Dr. Biden would do is maybe establish a task force to look at what should we as a nation do to move the needle on retention,” he said.

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