VP visits West L.A. College, soon to offer a bachelor’s degree program

By Gary Walker

Vice President Joe Biden tours the West L.A. College Dental Hygiene Laboratory Photo by Michelle Long- Coffee

Vice President Joe Biden tours the West L.A. College Dental Hygiene Laboratory
Photo by Michelle Long- Coffee

Vice President Joe Biden visited West Los Angeles College last Friday to speak about the Obama administration’s plan to subsidize community college tuition fees and to tour the school’s dental hygiene program, which will soon begin to offer bachelor’s degrees.

Last Tuesday the California Community Colleges Board of Governors gave preliminary authorization for the West L.A. College bachelor’s program as well as a four-year interactive digital technology design degree at Santa Monica College.

The pilot community college bachelor degree program aims to expand access to higher education by making four-year degrees more affordable: upper-division units at community colleges will cost just $84 per credit hour, compared to hundreds of dollars at traditional four-year schools.

Biden said the White House plan — to eliminate the first two years of community college tuition fees for students who maintain at least a 2.5 GPA while advancing toward a degree — would aid in the development of a workforce with 21st-century skills.

“Twelve years [of education] is not enough in 2015,” Biden said. “America is on the cusp of its greatest economic renaissance since after World War II. The economy is back. We’re well positioned to continue this growth, but they’re two things that we need: we have to have the most advanced education — the best educated population in the world — and we need to have the best infrastructure in the world.”

Biden likened community college tuition relief to the nation’s past education initiatives, from the advent of public schools to the GI Bill, as a tool to lift the poor and middle class to a higher standard of living.

California community college fees are already the lowest in the nation, meaning an influx of federal funds would likely “free up resources to add classes, innovate new programs and develop other aspects of student support,” said California Community Colleges Board of Governors President Geoffrey Baum.

After touring the West L.A. College Dental Hygiene Laboratory, Biden joined a roundtable discussion with students, faculty and administrators that also included Rep. Karen Bass (D- Los Angeles), who attended West L.A. College.

Biden said he was “truly impressed” with the students and their classroom equipment, calling those who have returned to school mid-career or who are just entering their college career “courageous.”

Students at West Los Angeles College are in a very good position to take advantage of the free tuition proposal due to the high level of instruction there, Biden said.

“The school has to have a high graduation rate and a high placement rate, because we are not going to waste taxpayer money on a school that is not viewed as having the quality of being able to place these students,’” he said.

Baum said West L.A. College has a 100% success rate for placing dental hygiene graduates in jobs over the past 10 years.

“This program is a shining star of the community colleges system and I was pleased on [Jan. 20] to vote to make it one of the pilot baccalaureate programs,” Baum said.

Biden did not delve into specifics of the administration’s community college initiative except to emphasize that two tuition-free years would allow students to meet expenses for food, housing and child care. The administration has proposed a $3,000 child care tax credit and would also allow students to use Pell Grants to help pay for transportation and housing, he said.

Food, housing and child care are among the greatest expenses for community college students, West L.A. College President Nabil Abu-Ghazaleh said.

“Our challenge is not tuition. Our challenge is the cost of living in California and the challenge of having to work and go to college part-time, which is the greatest contributor to non-completion [of a degree],” Abu-Ghazaleh said.

Biden said he has learned much of what he knows about challenges faced by community college students from his wife, Jill Biden, a longtime community college professor.

“My wife has had this expression for a long time. She’s always said, ‘The best-kept secret in America is the community college system.’ The other expression that she uses is ‘Any country that out-educates us will out-compete us,” Biden said.