MESA — First lady Jill Biden was met with nothing but praise and happy students Monday morning during her visit to Mesa Community College, where she applauded the city for its successful college scholarship program.
Following her trip to the Super Bowl on Sunday, Biden stopped in Mesa to vocalize again her support for Mesa College Promise, a public-private partnership commitment from the city of Mesa to all of its residents that eligible high school graduates can attend Mesa Community College for two years with Arizona resident tuition and fees fully funded.
“When I was second lady, we launched the College Promise to make community college tuition-free and help students cross the finish line,” Biden said. “And Joe and I continued to support this work at the Biden Foundation. Now, at the White House, we are still working to make community college free, despite challenges from Congress.”
College Promise programs are offered at select schools across the country, giving lower-income, first-generation and other students enough financial support for their first two or more years of postsecondary education.
The program at Mesa Community College is in its second year, having doubled in size since its first cohort, and offers students more than just financial benefits. Mesa Mayor John Giles said the cohort of students have “wraparound services” including counselors, technology to complete coursework and a support system network of professors and other faculty who are consistently checking in.
Alongside the first lady were U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, Gov. Katie Hobbs, Mesa Community College President Tammy Robinson and Maricopa Community Colleges Chancellor Steven Gonzales.
“Your president and his secretary of education know we need pipelines that start in high school, provide access to two years of community college and connect to great jobs,” Biden said. “Because that’s the future of our workforce and our economy.”
The first lady’s remarks come on the coattails of the president’s State of the Union address, where he reiterated his goal to “give public school teachers a raise” and said he was “making progress by reducing student debt, increasing Pell Grants for working and middle class families.”
“Let’s finish the job and connect students to career opportunities starting in high school. Provide access to two years of community college, the best career training in America, in addition to being a pathway to a four-year degree,” Biden said in his Feb. 7 address.
By 2027, Cardona said, 70% of jobs will require some type of post-secondary education and that preparing students, aligning education with the workforce and “paving every pathway with equity and excellence in mind” is on us.
“We have an opportunity of a lifetime here to connect the dots,” Cardona said. “And you’re doing that exceptionally well here. You show what’s possible when local governments, school districts, community colleges and industry partners work together to create affordable pathways to college and career.”
Lilly Hernandez, a first-generation student studying construction management at Mesa Community College, did not come to college right out of high school, waiting a handful of years because she did not want her parents to go into debt.
“The fact that I don’t have to pay for tuition is the only reason I’m able to stand here today,” she said.
Mesa College Promise began in early 2020 with the hopes of addressing a low rate of residents with college degrees.
“Raising funds has not been the challenge for this program. The challenge has been changing hearts and minds, helping families to see that over 80% of the participants in this program are first-time college families. And the thing we love about this program, it’s not just your tuition is paid, we’ll see a graduation,” Giles said.
During the 2021 legislative session, then-Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill into law allowing community college students to earn bachelor’s degrees without needing to attend another higher education institution.
The first lady, who is not an elected member of Congress or a member of the president’s Cabinet, is generally responsible for advancing a set of social causes. Jill Biden has been a leading messenger on issues like reopening schools safely after the pandemic and has been supporting the president’s economic agenda.
Unlike other presidential spouses, Biden has continued to teach English and writing courses at Northern Virginia Community College while serving as first lady.
In her short remarks at the first lady’s visit, Hobbs said she’s working to increase investments in rural colleges and continue funding in STEM training programs at colleges in urban areas. She said she hopes to expand access to dual-enrollment programs, something she said high school students aren’t utilizing in ways they should.
Job training focused on STEM — for science, technology, engineering and math — has been a massive part of conversations in and about Arizona, with the president visiting in recent months to tour computer chip plants in the state.
In Congress, Stanton has been backing bipartisan infrastructure plans in ongoing projects like Mesa Gateway Airport, aerospace companies and Fortune 500 corporations. He has also touted benefits from the CHIPS Act, which will encourage development of advanced semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S., at facilities like Arizona’s Intel and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. plants.
Stanton told the College Promise students that, “Our success as a state and your success are directly tied together.”
Next, the first lady is scheduled to visit Indiana, where she will give similar remarks on “strengthening our economy and building pathways to good-paying jobs through career-connected learning.”
“Across the country, we’re seeing programs like this one bridging the gap between what students learn and the careers they will eventually find,” Biden said. “And we need more communities to follow Mesa’s lead. Because when they do, every student, no matter their background, will have the chance to follow their passions and find a pathway to a great job.”