Remarks by Secretary DeVos to the Michigan Community College Association Summer Conference

Archived Information

Remarks by Secretary DeVos to the Michigan Community College Association Summer Conference

July 27, 2017

Good morning! Thank you, Cameron, for the kind introduction and for your leadership at North Central Michigan College. Michael Hansen, thank you for your leadership of this association.

And thank you all for what you do to provide Michiganders with innovative alternatives throughout their lifelong learning journeys.

Over the years, I've hired many of your talented graduates – especially from Grand Rapids Community College; where are my friends from West Michigan? -- they've been among the most capable and best-trained employees I've had the pleasure of working with.

Our state has a strong community college tradition, with a record of success for providing an alternative education pathway for all students. Every one of the 28 institutions that make up the MCCA brings something unique. And they reflect the beauty and resilience of our state.

It was also great to recently meet with members of the Rural Community College Alliance who are helping to revitalize communities too often ignored by Washington – I know many of you are part of that group too. We value their insights and support them in preparing the students they serve.

I applaud your efforts in meeting Michiganders where they are so they can build bright futures for themselves and their families.

In many ways, what you do is a testament to that Midwestern grit. The very first community college was founded right here in the Midwest, in Joliet, Illinois. With an initial enrollment of six students in 1901, the school was created to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.

It feels a lot like 1901 here on Mackinac Island. And while that's a welcome break every now and then, I'm not sure any of us would be ready to stay trapped "Somewhere in Time" ... though unlimited access to the world's best fudge does make it tempting.

You see, change makes us better. And while some higher education institutions can be resistant to change, I know that's not the case with you. One hallmark of a community college is its remarkable ability to adapt. I wish more in education would anticipate the needs of students like you do.

One of my first public meetings after taking office was with the National Community College Legislative Summit in February. I said it then and I'll say it again today: community colleges are a uniquely American institution and a proud national asset.

Your work is inclusive, innovative, collaborative, and entrepreneurial. Community colleges are the heartbeat of the education ecosystem. Your wide range of options help students thrive in our competitive and constantly changing economy. Community college graduates have skills that make for satisfied employers, booming industries, and healthy communities.

The Right Signals Initiative is a strong example of your focus on continuous change and improvement. Where are the leaders from Mid-Michigan Community College? Congratulations to you on being a part of the 20-school first phase of this program.

Kudos are also due to my friend, Dan Phelan. Thank you, Dan, for your leadership at Jackson College and with the American Association of Community Colleges. We are all indebted to you for this trailblazing effort.

As many of you already know, the Initiative helps employers more fully understand a wide range of credentials, including certificates, degrees, apprenticeships, and badges. The goal, as the name suggests, is to send employers, students, and colleges "the right signals" about the many benefits community colleges offer. This helps develop a better, shared understanding of what students know and can do. This common-sense approach is but one of the many ways community colleges are helping meet the needs of both our students and our economy.

Community colleges thrive because your institutions are student-centric. Whatever pathway a student wants to take, you're ready with offerings like night and weekend classes, online courses, child care, academic and career counseling, micro-grants, part-time and full-time programs, and also dual enrollment programs for high school students.

You open your doors to all students, especially those who face obstacles to success.

Let me tell you about Michael, who attends Valencia College in Florida.

Michael grew up in a rough and tumble neighborhood in East Hartford, Connecticut. Michael knew he was failing in high school, but he continued to be passed along.

He went on to serve in Afghanistan, and is now married with three young daughters. He found work as a bell man at a hotel. But, one day his wife asked, "Is this the kind of work you want to do for the rest of your life?"

With some soul-searching and encouragement from his wife, Michael enrolled at Valencia.

Today, he is an honors student. He's wrapping up pre-requisite courses for nursing, and hopes to work in an emergency room. It's not news to anyone here that health care is a high-demand field with family-supporting wages and endless opportunities to grow.

Community colleges give students like Michael a new lease on life. I'm sure many of you can think of the Michaels on your campuses right now.

Your institutions send a message to every student, and every worker: no matter what field you pursue, we respect your talent and initiative. Honest work, and generations of honest workers helped make this nation great.

But economies change and we can see the writing on the wall: by 2020, about two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require some kind of a credential after high school. You and I know the many pathways: industry recognized certificates, certifications and licensures, two-year degrees, four-year degrees, and advanced degrees.

Too many for too long have insisted upon elevating four-year degree programs over other options. That singular focus hasn't served anyone well.

The vast majority of American students today aren't traditional students. We recognize that, and that's why we restored year-round Pell funding almost as soon as I arrived in Washington.

Students should be able to pursue their education when and how it fits their schedule. Politicians should not be dictating to students when and how they can learn.

That's but one example of how we're making progress in rethinking how to best serve students.

We are also streamlining the loan-servicing process, ensuring that borrowers are protected while improving their experiences as customers, and at a lower cost to taxpayers.

We reset some of the previous administration's well-intentioned, but poorly implemented, regulations including Borrower Defense to Repayment and Gainful Employment rules. Through a new negotiated rulemaking process, we're focused on protecting students from predatory practices, treating them as adults, and treating all institutions fairly.

President Trump and I want to help students understand their options, and be able to choose a path that meets their individual needs. Know that President Trump and I will continue to champion community colleges as providers of these much-needed alternative pathways.

The need couldn't be more urgent. We need a robust and nimble workforce equipped to take the 21st century global economy head on.

Across states and industries, there are 6 million job openings. Your students will be the ones to get many of those job offers, perhaps even before they graduate!

Your work will help close the skills gap, jump-start our regional economies, and connect more Americans with the good jobs and salaries that once helped so many families and communities thrive.

We in the Midwest know all too well what it's like to be a once-thriving community. But we know about resurrection, too.

Perhaps no part of the country was affected more by the de-industrialization of the past several decades than Michigan. We had a whole generation of workers who saw their jobs disappear – jobs that, largely due to technological advances, weren't coming back.

So many of them decided to go back to school – to gain new knowledge and skills that would help them compete for today's jobs. The rise of a modern workforce has attracted business to come back to Michigan, and we're seeing the state's economy growing again.

Community colleges – and all of you in this room – deserve a lot of credit for that resurgence.

We need to change the conversation about education journeys in America because unlike generations past, the rising generation expects to have many different jobs, often in different industries, over the course of their careers.

As such, education can't stop at age 22. Education will --and should -- be a lifelong pursuit, with multiple pathways, often outside of the traditional 4 year degree.

Community colleges will be that option for many, and they should never, ever be dismissed as a "lesser option" or a last resort.

I know from meeting your students that there are no "ordinary" men and women on your campuses, no "ordinary" jobs, and no "ordinary" lives. We know your students can do extraordinary things. There's no limit to what they can achieve. Let's never let them forget that.

While students are getting the best from you, it's clear higher education policy from Washington needs a reimagining.

Consideration of the Higher Education Act is on the horizon, and too many east of the Potomac want to pass it along like too many students are passed along in failing schools.

This 50-year-old law still governs and defines much of what you can and cannot do to educate the students you serve.

That's the status quo. And as Ronald Reagan liked to quip: "status quo" is Latin for, "the mess we're in."

If defenders of the status quo cling to a 19th century education system, how can you prepare students for 21st century realities?

A 21st century education law should focus on achieving results, not on buildings or "systems."

It should anticipate and meet the needs of students, not force them into cookie-cutter education plans that work only for some.

It should recognize that there are many pathways to success – beyond traditional four-year college degrees. Students need to know and choose from the widest possible menu of options.

This is an inflection point for higher education, as we remove bureaucratic burdens so you can do what you do best: educate.

The Perkins Act reauthorization is also gaining traction on Capitol Hill. We like the approach to reforming and strengthening career technical education reflected in the bills legislators are considering, but we should not do this piecemeal? Piecemeal does not help students, or you. The more pages of legislation generated, the more you are distracted from educating and equipping students.

Additionally, President Trump's 2018 budget proposal lays out plans to simplify federal aid. Instead of five different repayment plans, undergraduates can now pay their loans off faster. And the budget continues to help low-income and first-generation students complete their studies and directs nearly half a billion dollars to institutions that serve students of color.

Importantly, I also look forward to hearing from you on accreditation. What is working and what isn't – for you and for your students.

The most important changes we need in education in this country won't ultimately come from Washington – they will come from you. My job is to get the federal government out of the way so the focus is on the student. A student's educational journey shouldn't be defined by the bureaucratic barriers encountered along the way.

We have a chance to think big and act boldly on behalf of our students and their futures.

Let's seize the moment to ensure that each and every student has an equal opportunity to receive a great education.

Thank you for all you do to help make that a reality.