Community College Blog

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stepping down

What can we expect in 2016?

Melinda Salaman

Melinda Salaman, Associate Director
Student Success Collaborative-Navigate

The announcement that Arne Duncan will step down as U.S. Secretary of Education in December was a shock to some, and a moment of uncertainty for most. Questions swirled about the nature of Duncan’s departure—why leave with a full year left in Obama’s final presidential term? Did negative backlash from unions, Republican lawmakers, and others finally force an early resignation?

There are a lot of uncertainties about the sudden departure of the nation’s seven-year Secretary of Education, but the post-Duncan higher education landscape should also raise questions. Here are our predictions for the future of Duncan’s two ongoing public initiatives, and the resources community college leaders need to maximize these opportunities.


Free community college

President Obama introduced the America’s College Promise proposal in January 2015, igniting a media firestorm with the two-year sector squarely in the middle. Duncan fueled the fire with visits to campuses all across the country—including some high-profile visits in Tennessee and Illinois, where he praised local efforts to offer free community college tuition for eligible students. However, College Promise has had more than a few naysayers among both lawmakers and the general public. With Duncan’s departure and the end of Obama’s second term on the horizon, how likely is it that the College Promise proposal will become a reality?

2016 forecast: Unlikely to become law, but national attention on community colleges will continue
The $60 billion price tag and the political reality in Washington, D.C. make it unlikely that a national program of the kind Obama and Duncan are championing will become a reality in the near future. However, the proposal’s introduction and subsequent media attention has brought more attention to the community college sector this year than in recent history—and with that, more scrutiny. Americans largely agree that we need college graduates to compete in the international economy, but are unsure whether community colleges are the right place to educate the roughly 60% of Americans who do not hold a college degree.

If the college affordability proposals touted at last week’s Democratic Party debate are any indication, the national conversation will continue at least through the presidential election, particularly as states like Oregon consider their own statewide free community college initiatives.

How to prepare
College leaders need to focus on improving their institutional brands. The general public and prospective students should know about the educational quality of community colleges as well as the value they provide to local and national economies through strong workforce training and job placement. Section 3 of our white paper Excellence in Community College Marketing outlines key value propositions colleges should emphasize in their marketing efforts, as well as best practice examples for implementation.

National Common Core standards

Our research team has followed the development and progress of the Common Core State Standards over the past few years. While the standards are debated most often among K-12 professionals, there are clear impacts for higher education leaders. The Common Core attempts to standardize the definition of “college and career ready,” which became a much more complicated and controversial task than Duncan perhaps anticipated.

2016 forecast: Standards likely to remain in some states, but controversy will continue throughout the presidential campaigns
The number of states that have adopted the Common Core has fluctuated since our team began tracking the initiative. To date, 42 states and several U.S. territories have adopted the standards, making the Common Core a true national curricular standard. Given that so many states have just started implementing the standards, it is unlikely that they will be completely rolled back in the next year. However, the issue has become increasingly politicized, so the national conversation is sure to continue throughout the 2016 campaign and beyond.

How to prepare
Whether or not Common Core survives in its current form after the 2016 election, community college leaders should use this year to strengthen partnerships with local high schools that are increasingly looking to create a culture of career- and college-readiness for their students. Read Section 1 of our best practice study Turning High School Partnerships into College Enrollments for strategies to cultivate college navigation skills starting in high school.

Where to focus in the next year

Increased federal and public attention on the community college sector this year has brought a mix of both positive changes and major challenges for community college leaders. Invest in strategies that help your institution adapt to the longstanding changes Arne Duncan made during his tenure as well as the changes that will come with his departure. The most progressive college leaders will prepare for next year’s uncertainties by strengthening the foundation of their institutions through local partnerships and stronger messaging to their communities.

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