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Rep. Madeleine Dean: Making Community College a Priority

[Some of my students] couldn’t do all three: commute, work, and schoolwork. So, I saw the affordability problem growing and growing in that setting, but I hear it also from my constituents in every higher education setting.”

Rep. Madeleine Dean represents Pennsylvania’s Fourth Congressional District, having been elected in 2018. In this interview, which was conducted on September 16th, Rep. Dean joins Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss America’s College Promise Act, which she is co-sponsoring with Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mi.). The bill aims to “provide two years of tuition-free access to community college programs,” along with “bolstering important parts of our higher education system like [Historically Black Colleges and Universities].” Rep. Dean previously taught at La Salle University in Philadelphia and has made education-related issues a focus during her time in Congress thus far.

When you spoke with us in February, you were just entering Congress and you outlined a number of priorities, including gun violence and opioids. Now, you’re well into your first year. Generally speaking, what are some accomplishments and priorities you’re particularly excited about from the past several months since that initial interview?

Those two issues: gun violence and opioids remain top of my list. When I was on the campaign, I talked about the cost of college and the barrier that the cost of college and student debt becomes for our young people. So, college affordability is a big issue for me. I’m really pleased that this Congress has worked really hard, as Nancy Pelosi says, “For the people.” We’ve passed more than 200 bills, many of them super important bills that America wants. And I’ll talk specifically on gun violence. In February, we passed two bills to close background check loopholes: universal background check and Charleston loophole. Sadly, in six to seven months, the Senate has done nothing but sit on its hands. But we’re going to keep going because—maybe you saw last week—we marked up three more gun violence prevention bills, which we hope to send to the floor very soon. Then, on the 25th of September, we are having a hearing in the Judiciary [committee] on legislation regarding an assault weapons ban. So, we’re moving and doing a tremendous amount, recognizing that we have an obligation, moral and constitutional, to save lives. 

That’s right, and I attended your event in March with Congressman Thompson in Norristown [to cover that event]. So now to focus more specifically on today’s topic, the America’s College Promise Act, can you talk about your hopes for this initiative, when you decided this was something you wanted to throw your weight behind and really make a priority, and where your head is at as Congress considers this initiative? 

Forgive me for looping back once more to where we were—if you don’t mind—because it’s connected to a particular bill I was proud of. I don’t like to use the word “proud” but I’m pleased that—as a freshman—I was able to get a bill passed and signed into law by the president, and it has to do with suicide. It’s the STOIC Act, and I co-sponsored that with Guy Reschenthaler, a freshman Republican from Western Pennsylvania. It is to restore grants to police departments for the growing problem of increased suicide rates among law enforcement. So, for a freshman to get something passed—I didn’t know that was fairly rare—but I was certainly excited to have that bill passed to hopefully save lives in that space. The statistics there are pretty grim. The number of deaths by suicide in law enforcement has topped the number in the line of duty. The grants are not just for law enforcement themselves, but it’s also for the department to incorporate programming for families of law enforcement. I just wanted to make sure I said that because I’m very excited that this was signed.

I’m glad you actually raised that point, Congresswoman. As I mentioned to Matt [Bieber (Rep. Dean’s Press Secretary)] the other day: in my interview last week with Congressman Van Drew on bipartisanship, I mentioned the STOIC Act as an example of where Republicans and Democrats are working together. 

Thank you for noticing. So, for College Promise, I think I’ve cared about this for a really long time, as a mother and as somebody who education has made all the difference for in my life—and the fact that for me it was affordable. It’s a long time ago now, but it was obviously far more affordable [then] than higher education is now. But for my husband and for myself, the most important thing that we thought we could do for our children is to push them to get the best education they could in order to lead a happier and more productive life. But, as a professor—I was a professor for ten years at La Salle University—I saw very personally how difficult and how sometimes unattainable and unaffordable college is. So, when I ran, I said I would like to make community college free, and I’d like interest-free student loans. Those are my broader goals. Then to have the opportunity to co-sponsor with Representative [Andy] Levin America’s College Promise is just super exciting.

How is the initiative being received? I know that in May, you and Congresswoman Scanlon hosted Speaker Pelosi a Delaware County Community College. How is this [initiative] being received in this general climate where education arguably is getting more attention? 

It’s exciting that it’s [receiving] this attention. I think in some ways there’s sort of a disbelief: “How could you possibly make tuition free at community college?” I’m such a believer in community colleges. Where we’re going to today, my community college, Montgomery County Community college—where I actually took courses as an undergraduate—they are such an engine for education and for our economy. So, even though they are at a lower cost than state universities or private universities, they’re unsung in some ways, and that’s one thing I want to do: is shine a light on the excellence that is our community college system. But the other thing I want to do is recognize that we’ve got an extraordinary problem in student loan debt: $1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt. So people, including young people and their parents, are eager for ways to make sure that with equity they’re able to access higher education.

So, it’s being received very well, with a little bit of: “How are you going to pay for that?” And what I believe is how we budget reveals our priorities. This is the kind of investment in our children’s future that would be an economic boost. I’m confident of that. [It’s also about] trying to begin to level the playing field of children and young people who don’t come from great affluence, who sit back and say, “I can’t take on big college debt.” If they could achieve an associate’s degree or technical training at a community college—and then either step into careers or step into higher education or university—it would be an economic engine. I’m certain.

I’m wondering if it’s also particularly apt to these times. For example, Andrew Yang has received a lot of attention talking about this issue of automation. Back when Governor Hickenlooper was still Governor [of Colorado], he and I spoke about possibly leveraging education towards this end, where he gave the example of retraining bank tellers to go into cybersecurity or something along those lines. I’m wondering if you see this community college issue intersecting at all with this broader automation conversation the country is currently having?

Sure, and know that we’ve been in this conversation for a few years now; and our politics reveals that. There are people who are worried and upset that they have been pushed out of the marketplace: the things that they trained for ten years ago—whether through technical training or through university—some of those jobs are missed or moving, and technology is changing so rapidly. Absolutely, we need to train and retrain people. When I taught at [La Salle], I had adults coming back to retrain themselves, so, in this changing marketplace, with the rapid movement of technology, I think this could be a really important part of that.

My understanding is that you taught English and writing. I know you mentioned that your interest in affordable college has been a lifelong focus, but was that reinforced by any specific experiences when you yourself were teaching?

Well, I’m a little bit prejudiced, but I would always tell my students that the writing courses they were taking were the most important courses that they would ever take! I say that tongue-in-cheek, but I also do mean that. I try to explain to the students that I believe when they harness their words, they’re really harnessing their thinking. If they learn the basics and the importance of the mechanics of the skill of writing and then take it to an even higher form in the art that is writing, they’re going to be increasing their ability to make their arguments. They’re going to be able to think things through, and that translates directly into the job market. If you can think things through, write down your thoughts, and express them in a persuasive, appropriate, fact-based way, you’re going to be able to make that argument for the job that you want, the promotion that you want, or any new learning that you want.

The more I taught writing, rhetoric, and ethics, and I taught in the MBA program as well, the more I watched the young people in front of me—and sometimes the not-so-young-people in front of me—claiming education and stepping up into their careers. One of the things that I saw in the ten years that I taught at La Salle University was that the college affordability problem increased. By the time I had finished up at La Salle, I was having too many conversations with students who came in and started full-time living on campus, and then the next semester they would say, “Well, I have to give up living on campus; I’ve got to commute and work part-time.” Then too often, the next semester, we didn’t retain them. They couldn’t do all three: commute, work, and schoolwork. So, I saw the affordability problem growing and growing in that setting, but I hear it also from my constituents in every higher education setting.

I’m glad you brought up—for a moment—the importance of a humanities education, something that is sometimes under fire a bit today. I know George Will says that there should be one required major, and that’s history. But I think that’s a good point about that humanities foundation. I know in the bill itself there’s a lot of talk about workforce training, and I know that one of the other initiatives going on in Congress is this Civics Learning Act—obviously at the K-12 level—about more informed citizenry, and I’m wondering how you see this community college issue intersecting with not only strong job skills but also more informed citizens as well. 

Boy-oh-boy, with all the conversation in the work I’m doing, both in D.C. and back home—and in this political climate—I agree with the notion that we all should be better students of history and that we should all be better students of civics and how our government works: “What is the rule of law?” “Why should we prize it?” “Why should we protect it?” And, “Why does it matter if one person gets away with egregious wrongs?” At the elementary school level, at the high school level, and at a higher education level, we need to be making sure that we reconnect with our history. Otherwise, as everybody says, “We’re doomed to repeat it,” especially some of the bad parts of it. So, I’m a big supporter of that legislation, and I have to say that the same conversation has come up in small meetings with parents concerned about not enough civics education. “How does our government work?” “Why does it work that way?” “Why are there co-equal branches of government?” And, “Why is it that one person isn’t in charge of the whole thing?” Our framers were so smart, and we have to abide by that.

I saw in the text of that bill, there is the figure cited that one-third of Americans are not familiar with the three branches of government [for instance]. Lastly, I want to raise a potential criticism that comes up from time to time [in response to proposals] to make a certain degree of education more universal. Economist Bryan Caplan has been one of the main people to put forward this idea. Since a lot of hiring is based on relative skills, when you make a degree universal, people have to go and get another degree. So if everybody has an associate’s degree, then someone needs to get a bachelor’s degree to stand out from everyone else who has an associate’s degree and so on. Or maybe you prefer to take the approach of those like Lincoln Chafee, who has said, let’s just focus first on having better educated citizens? I’m wondering where you weigh in on this question. 

I don’t see the downsides of more people getting an associate’s degree. I think it’s oxygen for them, for their lives, and for their future, and it’s oxygen for our economy and building a stronger world. That may sound a little cheesy, but I don’t think you say, “Well, we don’t want everybody to have this level of education.” I don’t think it waters it down. It couldn’t be more important, particularly in this day and age, and we’re seeing evidence of it. If we don’t have a well-educated workforce and population, we’re going to suffer. I always talk about education, and I think of my almost 8-year-old granddaughter; and I think how she gets her education is not going to only determine her future, but it’s going to determine all of our futures. If we’re under-educating the people [younger than we are], our children and our grandchildren, we’re dooming our future. So, I have no fears about more people having associate-level degrees. One of the other pieces that I really care about is this notion of access to education: who gets to go to school and who gets to have the chance to dream of something beyond high school. I visited my local area high schools, for example, Norristown high school, which has a very diverse population of kids. Some are asking really fascinating and interesting questions, showing they’re engaged, and they’re civically interested. 

They were pretty excited to have you visiting the school?

They really were; they were very excited. They ask great questions, but I always hope at the end I get to turn the light on them, instead of them asking me things. I always try to say to them: “Tell me about yourself. What do you want to do? What do you want to become? What’s next for you?” And all that beaming sometimes just goes dim at that moment because many of them will express that they can’t imagine taking on college debt at this time. Some of them say that they see their own parents still paying off college debt and not successfully. Others have parents who have not been to college. But to see their dreams go a little dim based on affordability—one of the things that I really like about this initiative is to me that it would begin to even the playing field for minority students, such as black and Hispanic students who sometimes have greater barriers than white students, including the money barriers and their economic circumstances. This bill also would have the ability to provide pathways for HBCU [Historically black colleges and universities] and students going into HBCU. I’m excited about that: the equity of education.

I also saw there was a provision for certain Native American tribes in the bill, as well. 

Yes, I thought that was so exciting. 

Congresswoman, always great to hear from you, and I appreciate your overview of this initiative. And I wish you well at your events with Rep. Levin later today.

Thank you, I’m really looking forward to it. I love getting on a college campus again. Thanks, Erich.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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