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Duncan: Community Colleges Important to Restoring Economy

Miami Dade College nursing student Shelia Martin was re-applying for food stamps online in the school’s downtown computer lab Friday, when she looked up to find Dr. Jill Biden, along with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a dozen news photographers, hovering over her.

“Well, nice to meet you,” said Martin, 50, subtly closing her computer screen and smiling broadly at the vice president’s wife.

As flashes popped and news crews pressed in, Martin, a grandmother of four, happily chatted with Biden about how she had enrolled in community college to “reinvent” herself. She never mentioned the food stamps.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, I hope they didn’t see what I was doing,’” Martin later said sheepishly. “But then I thought, ‘You know, I shouldn’t be ashamed of that.’”

Actually, the episode would have only reinforced the message Biden and Duncan brought with them on their symbolic visit to the South Florida school, the largest and most diverse college in the nation. Duncan — who recently called improving education the “civil rights issue of our generation” — picked this community college as his first appearance at an institution of higher learning since he joined President Barack Obama’s cabinet in January.

With their open-door policy and reputation as the gateway to higher education for many minorities, community colleges are the lead brigade in “getting America back on its feet again,” Duncan told a crowd of students at Miami Dade’s downtown Wolfson campus. Next to him on the raised platform: Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, who taught at Delaware Technical & Community College for 15 years and is now teaching English composition to remedial and English as a Second Language students at Northern Virginia Community College.

Biden has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education. Her dissertation topic? How to retain students in community colleges.

“My students are my heroes. Just like so many of you in the audience, they’re working, raising families and going to school,” Biden told the crowd of students.

Miami Dade College awards more associate degrees to Hispanic and Black students than any other college in the nation. It opened in the 1960s amid the strain of desegregation and the influx of thousands of Cuban refugees. Currently, 66 percent of the school’s students are Hispanic; another 21 percent are Black. Miami Dade College President Eduardo J. Padrón was recently selected chair of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the first Hispanic to hold the key post.

Like most schools of its kind around the country, Miami Dade is staggering from unprecedented numbers flocking to its classrooms. They include adults heading back to college to learn new skills in today’s tough job market and younger students choosing the cheaper route of community college over a four-year university. With a 15 percent enrollment increase in the past two years, the school now has 167,000 students spread out over eight campuses.

“You can see the growth, especially on the suburban campuses,” said the college’s spokesman, Juan C. Mendieta. “You see cars all over, on the track field and grass. In the morning and evenings, we are absolutely slammed.”

At the same time, the state has cut $35 million from Miami Dade College’s budget. As a result, class sizes are creeping up. The school has eliminated 1,000 class sections in the past year, limiting student access to courses. Several programs, including one that trained midwives, have been shut down.

The college is asking the Florida Legislature to pass a bill that would give Miami-Dade County voters the chance to approve a half-penny temporary sales tax to help maintain the school’s open-door policy.

“It would be a dark day if we have to cap enrollment,” Mendieta said.

In his first address to Congress, Obama last month challenged every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training, whether it’s at a community college, four-year school or vocational training. On Friday, Duncan discussed how funds from the president’s economic stimulus package will help make college more affordable.

Of $30.8 billion in the stimulus package for higher education, $17 billion will be used to close the shortfall in the Pell Grant program and boost grant amounts by $500 to $5,350 in the first year. The increase in Pell Grant aid will benefit low-income students, who are disproportionately represented at community colleges. Students who participate in the Federal Work-Study program also will receive larger awards. In addition, the package is providing nearly $14 billion in tuition tax credits for middle-class families, raising the credit to $2,500 from $1,800.

“Community colleges like Miami Dade are going to be an extremely important part of restoring the economy over the next few years and ensuring that our students can compete not just with their neighbors down the block, but also with their peers in China and India,’’ Duncan said.

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