In March, President Joe Biden introduced the American Jobs Plan, a $2.7 trillion infrastructure bill that endeavors to put people to work by addressing historic discrimination, climate change, broadband access, and labor rights — on top of building and repairing roads and bridges. A day after Biden announced the proposal, the Republican National Committee denounced it: “Joe Biden’s ‘infrastructure’ plan is not really about infrastructure, it is another multi-trillion dollar far left wish list.”
As Democrats and Republicans debate the definition of infrastructure, we should not forget that we can’t fix bridges and roads, especially if we are serious about slowing climate change, without massive investment in higher education and retraining. Sustainable careers go hand in hand with a sustainable infrastructure system. Roads and bridges are still important, but the real undergirding of 21st-century infrastructure — upgraded power grids, sustainable transportation, renewable energy — is knowledge and science. The road from kindergarten to a good career is currently full of potholes that the federal government needs to fill.
A full decade before her husband Joe, as president, would unveil his American Jobs infrastructure plan, Jill Biden, who is on the faculty of Northern Virginia Community College, was advocating for community colleges as crucial to economic revitalization. In a speech at the 2010 White House Summit on Community Colleges, Biden, who has a doctorate in education, noted that “community college students and graduates across the country are working in jobs that will enable us to expand our green economy, provide Americans with the excellent health care they deserve, and rebuild our country’s infrastructure.”
Biden added, “I meet students and learn about industry partnerships on every campus I visit that reinforce what we in this room know well: Community colleges are at the center of Americans’ effort to educate our way to a better economy.”
The Bidens recognize that higher education is infrastructure.
The Bidens recognize that higher education is infrastructure. In the American Jobs Plan, the president notes that “investing in community college facilities and technology helps protect the health and safety of students and faculty, address education deserts (particularly for rural communities), grow local economies, improve energy efficiency and resilience, and narrow funding inequities in the short-term.” To begin to accomplish this vision, the plan calls for $12 billion to address physical and technological infrastructure needs at community colleges and to help expand access.
Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Matt Reed, Vice President Academic Affairs, Brookdale Community College, argues that the funding is essential as tech-heavy industries emerge as the home for middle skill jobs and many institutions face challenges scaling up to provide the various learning environments (such as simulation labs) needed to train the next generation of workers.
Investments in community college can build a bridge to sustainable careers; the same bridge is constructed when we develop our historically Black colleges and universities.
Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, reminded us in a February piece in The Atlantic that “HBCUs have produced more than 80 percent of Black judges, 40 percent of Black Congress members, and roughly half of Black public-school teachers.” The nation’s HBCUs produce “20 percent of all Black college graduates and more than 25 percent of Black STEM-degree holders,” he added. HBCUs are underappreciated assets that can help spark the economy and refurbish the nation’s 21st- century infrastructure.
Because right now, they are severely underfunded. Lomax noted that the total endowment holdings of all 101 HBCUs is approximately $3.4 billion. To put that in perspective, there are 25 individual predominantly white institutions with larger endowments.
Biden’s infrastructure plan addresses this problem by requiring that half of the $40 billion he wants to put toward “upgrading research infrastructure in laboratories across the country, including brick-and-mortar facilities and computing capabilities and networks” be reserved for HBCUs and other Minority Serving Institutions. He’s also calling for an additional $25 billion to boost research and development and create 200 research incubators at these institutions.
Black people have a long history of building up the country (enslaved Black Americans did so for free, for hundreds of years). It’s past time we recognize our contributions. Biden’s infrastructure bill goes a long way to finally acknowledging that you can’t develop infrastructure without investing in people.
This story about higher education infrastructure was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.