According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), only 8% of Solo Moms enrolled in an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree program graduate within six years. But future, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden wants to change that statistic. In February 2019 at the Achieving the Dream national conference, Biden announced a new initiative called Community College Women Succeed, intended to help colleges understand how to help women, including Solo Moms, graduate from two-year institutions across the United States. A full-time English professor at Northern Virginia Community College and the Second Lady from 2009 to 2017, and now as, First Lady, Biden is uniquely positioned to “know the ropes” in the spheres of both boots-on-the-ground education—and policy.
She’s also recognized as the first U.S. vice presidential spouse to work full time for wages during her husband’s term. “When we won the election in 2008, no one really expected me to keep teaching,” Biden said, during a 2018 Cubberley Lecture at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “I couldn’t just walk away. I couldn’t just live Joe’s life.” What that meant was that Biden lived two lives. “I did both,” she said. “I went to state receptions with the most powerful men on Earth, then to study sessions with single mothers just hoping to get a job.” As First Lady, she intends to do the same. This is a break with precedent and a big step toward modernizing the first lady role.
Supremely down to earth, Biden found a way to make those two lives mesh: “There was a little nook on Air Force Two that contained the vice presidential seal, and I would sort of wedge myself in there and grade papers on the floor.” Her dedication to education is informed by a deep belief in its power to elevate. “Education is possibility set in motion,” she said, adding, “Just as important as the practical argument is the civic one. Education teaches us compassion and kindness, connection to others. Education doesn’t just make us smarter. It makes us whole.”
Achieving the Dream and the Biden Foundation are working together in support of the new initiative, which Biden hopes will make the opportunities afforded by education more accessible. “We will listen to women who know what they need more than anyone else,” Biden said, during the Achieving the Dream conference. “We’re hosting regional roundtables with students and working with advocates across the nation to figure out how to create the best, most effective support system we can.”
The listening sessions are meant to help educators and higher education researchers develop programs to help colleges redesign their campuses. The goal? Meeting the needs of women who are students—and parents. And there’s definitely a need: according to IWPR, the number of Solo Moms attending two- and four-year colleges more than doubled between 1999 and 2011. As of 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, Solo Moms comprise 11% of all undergraduates.
Dr. Biden understands the challenges Solo Moms face. “There isn’t one thing that’s going to suddenly make balancing work and childcare and education and pursuing your career simple,” she said. “But for the women who are willing to give their all, who are willing to fight for the futures they want and deserve, we can do more.”
To learn more about Jill Biden, look for her memoir, Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself (Flatiron Books), 2019.
Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.
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