As deputy assistant education secretary for community colleges with the Education Department, Dr. Frank Chong sees his main responsibilities as listening to and promoting two-year public colleges. With students of color relying heavily on this sector in a struggling economy, raising college graduation rates for diverse populations is never far from his mind.
“If you raise the bar and provide support services, all students can achieve at a high level,” he said in a recent interview with Diverse. “We see community colleges as the way to increase the number of degrees so that our communities will be well-trained for high-paying jobs.”
More than a year into his tenure at the Education Department, Chong describes the job as a “whirlwind” that has included legislative battles in Washington, D.C., and listening tours to 25 states. During that time, Congress approved a $2 billion grant program for community colleges—albeit less than the $12 billion originally proposed—while federal programs faced uncertainty first with a threatened government shutdown and then a potential default.
Given significant cutbacks in state funding for higher education, the $2 billion in new federal money for community colleges is “much needed,” he says. In visiting 25 states, Chong says he was pleasantly surprised to find sector leaders who were hopeful for the future.
“I had expected to find people who were demoralized. Instead, people are focused on getting students through the pipeline,” he said. “I think there’s a great amount of optimism.”
Chong, 53, brings a variety of skills to his current job. His background as a member of the San Francisco Board of Education and as an aide to former California House Speaker Willie Brown gives him formidable political skills. His tenure as president of two community colleges, most recently Laney College in Oakland, Calif., gives him detailed knowledge of needs in the two-year sector.
Among his top priorities are acceleration strategies so students can move quickly through a two-year degree or certificate program. Acceleration strategies also can combine college-level courses with remedial skill-building. Nearly two-thirds of students entering community colleges need remediation, Chong says, complicating the college plans of many students since they may have to brush up on skills they should have mastered in high school.
“A disproportionate percentage of students of color come in with these deficits, and it puts them at a disadvantage,” he said.
Acceleration strategies can help these students enter college-level courses quickly and seamlessly. Citing American Association of Community Colleges data, Chong says community colleges enroll 52 percent of Hispanics, 55 percent of Native-Americans, 44 percent of African-Americans and 45 percent of Asian-Americans currently attending institutions of higher education. Helping these students attain degrees is a key part of the president’s 2020 goal to dramatically increase the number of adults with college degrees. The administration is supporting such goals by maintaining a maximum Pell Grant of $5,550 and simplifying financial aid forms so students can receive the aid for which they qualify. Another priority is to permit the smooth transfer of credits from two-year schools to four-year colleges.
“We want to make sure there’s a dialogue between K-12 and higher education,” Chong says, adding that he wants these conversations to not only be at the local level but to be held at the national level as well so more students will graduate high school college-ready.
Within the community college sector, a federal goal is dissemination of best practices. The White House held its first summit on community colleges last October, and Chong’s visits nationwide also provide a forum to exchange information.
“Our goal is to keep the momentum going and to share promising practices,” he said. “I came here to elevate the importance of community colleges and their role in the president’s 2020 college graduation goal.”
In the current fiscal environment where budgets are under siege, he says it is essential for the community college sector to embrace partnerships. “You have to find a dance partner,” Chong says. He welcomes a role in helping community colleges develop such relationships.
Chong, while being a native of New York City, has spent most of his career on the West Coast and says he has faced some adjustments with working in Washington, D.C. “When you’re a college president you can boss around a lot of people,” he says. “But here you’re a team player, and I’m fine with that.”
He says Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made an important cultural change at the Education Department to promote diversity in programming as well as employment. “It’s a privilege to work in an administration that values diversity.” Chong is based in the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, although he says he also works closely with Martha Kanter, the undersecretary of education and the department’s point person for higher education. Among his many responsibilities, he says one of the most important is to be accessible to the two-year sector.
“I see my role to be an advocate for higher education. I welcome the opportunity to hear from the community,” he said. “I’ll try never to forget where I came from.”