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U.S. Education Secretary highlights Guilford Tech as example for other community colleges

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona calls Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) the “gold standard” for community colleges.

He said what’s happening on GTCC campuses is what President Joe Biden’s administration wants to see happening across the country: a connection between community colleges, the K-12 system, four-year institutions, and the workforce and labor market.

“It’s a good example of what it looks like to get a school that connects different systems together,” Cardona said, adding later: “A lot of the folks that graduate with these high-skill, high paying jobs are earning a lot. They don’t have college debt, and they’re doing exceptionally well.” 

Cardona visited the Greensboro campus of GTCC yesterday as part of the “Road to Success Back to School Bus Tour” he is taking with first lady Jill Biden. The two visited North Carolina A&T before Cardona split off to visit the community college.

The Road to Success bus is taking U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on a tour around the United States. Alex Granados/EducationNC

He had a chance to visit the campus and see the mechatronics, the heating, ventilating, air conditioning (HVAC), and the electronics programs, before sitting down with some students and chatting about their experiences.

“We’re really aiming to improve access to programs like this throughout the country, because we know how important they are,” he said, adding later: “In our country, I think we do a disservice when we limit choices or only show the four-year option to our students and limit their ability to grow and thrive in wonderful programs like I saw here.”

Touring the different programs, Cardona heard from instructors about what students can learn in the school’s various programs and why instruction like this is so important.

Andy Baughman, a mechatronics program instructor at GTCC, said in an interview after Cardona’s visit that it’s important for students to be exposed to mechatronics and understand what it is: the marriage of mechanisms and electronics. He said the overlap of those two fields can give people a “career path that can go in any direction.” He also said that GTCC can give students interested in the field something that isn’t as heavily emphasized at four-year institutions.

“They’re going to give you all the theory, but they’re not going to get you in a lab where you can touch and feel and see,” he said. “And a lot of people want that.”

Left to right, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, mechatronic instructor Andy Baughman, and GTCC President Tony Clarke. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Cardona said that the stigma some feel against community colleges is based in a lack of knowledge.

“When people think of advanced manufacturing, they think of dangerous, dirty, dingy places. that’s not what it is anymore,” he said. “So it’s really ignorance that’s driving that bias.” 

The need to get better information out to the student population about community colleges was brought up repeatedly by Cardona and the students he talked with.

Mary Medlin is a high school senior who is also enrolled in the community college through the state’s Career and College Promise program, which allows high school students to take free classes at community colleges.

Her brother came to the school and did technical training, and after he got a good job, she was inspired to try a trade herself. She is enrolled in the school’s HVAC and refrigeration curriculum.

“I was really nervous about getting into it … my instructors have been amazing, have helped me every step of the way,” she told Cardona.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona takes a tour of GTCC’s HVAC program. Alex Granados/EducationNC

She said she hears from a lot of high school friends that, for whatever reason, they are not able to do what she is doing. She said expanding these kinds of opportunities to more students is important.

Cardona agreed.

“We have pockets of excellence across our country,” Cardona said. “We have to systematize the opportunities you were provided.”

GTCC Student Government Association President Jeshika Lamsal also said that getting information out is important. She moved to the United States from Nepal when she was a teenager. She is majoring in philosophy and political science and plans to transfer to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2023.

“When I talk to students in tutoring centers … they don’t know about things that GTCC offers, and that is how GTCC is underestimated,” she told Cardona. “We have everything that a four-year college would offer.”

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona takes a tour of GTCC’s electronics program. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Cardona said that the problem is, in part, a lack of resources, including funding for adequate staff.

“This is what happens when we have ratios of 500 students to one counselor in high school,” he said. “This is what happens. Kids don’t get the information that they need to get.” 

And that information can mean good-paying jobs that allow students to start their careers earlier than those going through four-year colleges.

“I think sometimes people underestimate the importance of looking at different options,” Cardona said. “So here, you’re able to save some money, and you’re going to be able to get your degree, and you’re not going to be in as much debt.”

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, left, and GTCC President Tony Clarke talk with GTCC students. Alex Granados/EducationNC

The bus tour includes visits to Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, in addition to North Carolina.

GTCC President Tony Clarke said that having Cardona choose GTCC is an honor. This is the second time someone from the Biden Administration has visited GTCC. Vice President Kamala Harris visited in 2021.

“The recognition of having the secretary pick us out of the 1,500 community colleges in the country, that speaks highly of our faculty, staff, and students,” Clarke said.

And it’s not just GTCC — Cardona also spoke highly of North Carolina A&T following his visit there, particularly their efforts at recruiting students into their teacher preparation programs in light of the need for K-12 instructors around the country. In addition, he shouted out the Guilford County school system in a USA Today op/ed for their use of federal relief funds to provide “intensive tutoring” to students.

Cardona said one of the things that makes GTCC so special is that it understands its connection to the residents of its county.

“We were planning a bus tour, and we wanted to highlight what’s working in our country,” he said, adding later: “Other places do well, but they don’t realize the role that they have in the economic development of their community and of their state. This place does.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.