Open for Questions: Higher Education


Mr. Vargas:
Hello. Good morning, everyone. The Huffington Post is live here
in the White House for a unique and special event, an exclusive
interview with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and White
House Director of Domestic Policy Melody Barnes, about
the Obama administration’s higher education policies. And the best part is, the
questions comes from college students themselves. I’m Jose Antonio Vargas. I help oversee HuffPost College,
an extensive network of college newspaper sites across America. HuffPost College sent — asked
our video — for our college networks to send video questions
to both Secretary Duncan and Ms. Barnes. And joining me here this morning
is actually the editor of the college site whose video got
the most number of votes. Ms. Litman:
Hi. I’m Amanda Litman, a sophomore
American studies major at Northwestern University. I’m editor-in-chief of North by
Northwestern, which is part of the Huffington Post
college network. Within 36 hours, the top 13
video questions got nearly 150,000 votes and
almost 5,000 comments. Our first question today is a
video that got me here this morning. It’s from Julia Haskins, a
Northwestern freshman who feels her D.C. high school didn’t do enough to encourage minority achievement. Julia Haskins:
My public high school in Washington, D.C., stressed minority achievement,
but a lot of minority students weren’t encouraged to apply
to top-tier universities. I understand the value of
affirmative action to achieving that goal, but the real
affirmative action would be restoring commitment to minority
education before college, showing minority students
like me that we can achieve. How does the White House plan to
encourage minority students in high school to pursue
higher education? Ms. Barnes:
Well, that
is a great question. And first of all, Jose and
Amanda, I want to welcome you to the White House. Amanda, my law school roommate
is actually a Northwestern graduate — Ms. Litman:
Go Cats! Ms. Barnes:
— so I’ve heard lots about Northwestern. Exactly. I think that is a
terrific question. And the way that the
administration wants to encourage minority students,
indeed all students, to go on to college is first of all by
requiring that we engage in a race to the top. And I think that philosophy,
that idea, stands behind all of our policies. It means that we want every
student, all teachers, all parents to engage, to make
sure that every student has an excellent education
and is moving forward. One of the ways that we’re doing
that is by encouraging college and career ready standards. We want to make sure that every
student in every school is prepared to go on to
college and go to a career. And specifically and I remember,
it’s been a long time since I’ve been in high school and in
college, but I remember taking Advanced Placement classes, and
that allowed me to go from my high school and go on to college
feeling much more prepared and, in fact, having college credits. That’s something that we’re
including in our elementary and secondary education blueprint,
the ability for students to get dual credit, to take Advanced
Placement classes, so that they feel prepared and that they’re
already looking forward to — looking forward to college. Arne, I don’t know if there’s
anything you want to add to that. Secretary Duncan:
Sounds great. (laughs) Mr. Vargas:
The second question
is from Mary Warrick, who’s actually a first-year
graphic design major at the Savannah College of Art
and Design in Georgia. And she will graduate
with $15,000 in debt. Mary Warrick:
Hi. My name is Mary Warrick. I’m from Gainesville, Florida. I’m a first-year graphic design
student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. And my question is, because this
bill, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, takes effect
in 2014, I would like to know how it will apply to the
students who are in school today or have already graduated
before the bill becomes law? Secretary Duncan:
There are actually huge
benefits for students who are in school
today or graduating. And we’re so proud of what the
President accomplished and the courage he showed and Congress
in passing this bill. But effective today, if you
graduate, your loan repayments are going to be significantly
reduced from where they were in the past, down to
15% of your income. And so folks that want to go
into the public sector, who want to do things to help the
community, will have that opportunity. One of the things I’m most
excited about, and this is the law now, this is the law today,
is something called Income-Based Repayment, IBR, which
is what we talked about. But if you go into the public
service, if you become a teacher, if you become — if you
graduate from law school and want to go set up a legal aid
clinic, if you graduate from medical school and want
to go work in impoverished communities, if you enter the
military, if you enter the government, want to come help,
work with Melody someday, after 10 years of public service, any
debt you have will be erased, will be gone. And historically, there was
phenomenal talent who wanted to come in the public sector,
who wanted to help out, and obviously, I’m really biased
towards teaching, we need the next generation of teachers
to step up, but they simply couldn’t do it, their debt
load was way too high, 60, 80, $100,000 in debt. This is a game-changer. And we want that next generation
of smart, talented, committed folks with a passion for the
community to come and work with us, and that opportunity is
going to be there in a way that it never has been before. Ms. Litman:
That’s good. The next question comes from
Michael Brophy and Allison Ehrenreich, who are both
sophomores at Colby College in Maine. They’re both paying full
tuition, which means by the time they graduate, they will have
paid more than $200,000 each in tuition. Mr. Brophy:
The actual price of a
college education today can be over $200,000. This is a price we believe
no one should have to pay. Ms. Ehrenreich:
Even if a family does not
require financial assistance, it is still a huge burden on their
income, especially if they have more than one child who
aspires to go to college. Mr. Brophy:
While we recognize the
ways in which staff will help students finance a college
education, we believe that the root of the problem lies
in the very expensive and ever-increasing cost of higher
education in the United States. Ms. Ehrenreich:
What can the government do to
cap or regulate the actual price ticket of a college
education in America? My name is Allison Ehrenreich,
and I’m a sophomore at Colby College from New York. Mr. Brophy:
My name is Michael Brophy,
and I’m a sophomore at Colby College from San Francisco. Ms. Barnes:
Great. Well, thanks to Allison and
to Michael for that terrific question. And this is an issue we’ve all
been hearing about for many, many years. And in fact, it’s an issue that
the President addressed in the State of the Union when he
talked about the many different ways that the federal government
was going to be of assistance, through Pell grants, for
example, and making lending easier in filling out that
financial aid application. I’m sure both of you can
sympathize with that, that’s very complicated. Making that easier. At the same time, he also said
that colleges have to do their part, and asked colleges to
engage with us and think about ways, creative ways that they
can drive down their costs. At the same time, in — for
students who may not have a Pell grant or use some other kind of financial aid, we have, since we’ve been in office, 15 — and entered 15 months ago, tripled the size of the tax credit
that families can get. So now, over the course of a
four-year period, a family, through the American opportunity
tax credit, can get a $10,000 boost to help send their
students to college. Ms. Litman:
Great. Mr. Vargas:
This question comes from the members of the WU/FUSED at Washington University in
St. Louis. It’s a new group at a school
actually aimed at promoting socioeconomic
diversity on campus. It’s a really
interesting question. Member:
This year at Washington
we created a program called WU/FUSED. Our mission is to improve
socioeconomic diversity on campus. Member:
We conducted a school-wide
survey and found that socioeconomic diversity
on campus was lacking. Member:
Elite universities are getting harder and harder to get into. Member:
Especially for students who
come from modest backgrounds. All Members:
So we’d like to know! Member:
Does your administration have
any plans to promote class-based affirmative action? Secretary Duncan:
It’s a great question. I think it’s so important that
all of us, not just in college, but ideally in high school and
middle school and elementary school, have a chance to go to
school with students who don’t look like us, who come from
different backgrounds, race, class, socioeconomic status,
whatever it might be. And those informal learning’s
I think are hugely, hugely important that are very tough to
teach in a classroom setting, but you learn in the hallways
and the playgrounds and the dormitories. And I think the best thing we
can do to make sure we have a socioeconomic diverse student
body is to make college more affordable. And that’s why these huge
increases in Pell grants I think are so important. With this SAFRA bill, there’s an
additional $36 billion in Pell grants, you know, huge
investments over the next 10 years, so that what — for the
first time now in our country, we can look anyone in the eye
and say, regardless of how tough things are at home or the
neighborhood or if mom or dad’s loses a job or has a pay cut, if
you work hard, you’re going to have an opportunity
to go to college. And then at the back end, which
I talked about earlier, even if you take out some loans, if you
go into public service those loans are going to be forgiven. And even if you don’t go into
public service, those loans repayments will be indexed,
will be capped at 15% of your income, and then at 10% of
your income once we get to 2014. So by putting a huge influx,
it’s the biggest investment to make higher education more
accessible and affordable since the GI Bill, I think that’s the
best way to increase diversity and make sure that every student
from every different background, first-generation English
language learner, whatever it might be, will have the
opportunity to go to college. Ms. Litman:
The next question
is from College of New Jersey student Matt Hoke. Ms. Litman:
Sorry, the next question
is from Sarah Burdick, who also goes to the College
of New Jersey. Ms. Magdalier:
Hi. My name is Jessica Magdalier, a
student at the College of New Jersey. And my friend Thomas Jefferson
and I would like to know, since the Defense of Marriage Act
prohibits the recognition of same-sex unions on the federal
level, even in states where such unions are legal, under the
Obama administration’s new education guidelines, are LGBT
parents of college students able to sign off on loans if their
relationship is not recognized by the federal government? Ms. Barnes:
Great. That’s a wonderful question. And the response is that, as
long as the person is your legal guardian, they can sign your
promissory note or your loan. That’s the only
criteria that matters. Mr. Vargas:
That’s the only
criteria that matters. Ms. Barnes:
Yeah, if the person
is your legal guardian or legally recognized
as your parent. Mr. Vargas:
Great. This question comes from
Lisia Dala, a sophomore at Northwestern. Even though she’s Canadian,
she’s lived in the U.S. for 14 years. Hold on, we’ll
find the question. It skipped us. Here we are. Ms. Dala:
My family moved from Canada
to Texas when I was 6 years old, and I studied from first grade
through high school there. My application for permanent
residency has been pending for years, so I’m considered an
international student and don’t qualify for federal financial
aid, even though my parents pay taxes. When will the government offer
financial aid to immigrant students like myself who were
raised in the United States but have been unable to get
permanent residency or citizenship? Secretary Duncan:
That’s a huge issue. And it’s one that first
candidate Obama and now President Obama has been
absolutely passionate about. I ran the Chicago
Public Schools. Senator Durbin and Senator Obama
were big supporters of the DREAM Act and trying to push to make
sure that folks have a chance to pursue the American dream. And it breaks my heart when we
have young people around the country who have worked hard,
who have done the right thing, who have, you know, actively
engaged in school, been committed, gotten great grades,
and then all of a sudden they’re finding themselves having to
pay out-of-state tuition for an in-state school. Doesn’t make sense. And so as we think about
comprehensive immigration reform, one thing that’s very
interesting to me is how we push to try and get DREAM Act
legislation as a part of that. It’s the right thing
to do for individuals. It’s the right thing
to do for families. It’s the right thing
to do for the country. If we want all of our young
people to grow up and be productive citizens and be
players in our economy, we have to give them the chance
to go to college. Ms. Litman:
Great. This question is from College of
New Jersey student Matt Hoke. Mr. Hoke:
My name is Matt Hoke. I’m a student at the College of
New Jersey, which recently lost millions in state funding and,
therefore, also in faculty pay, services, and we’re
facing tuition hikes too. This is a chart depicting the
bailout money and how much it could have gone to
social services. Given that we have been spending
billions on financial bailouts and we are escalating the war in
Afghanistan, what does this say about our national priorities
when public school teachers are being laid off left and right? Ms. Barnes:
Well, the President
has made it very, very clear that education is one
of his top priorities. In fact, when he talks about the
priorities for the country, he says that it’s important, if
we’re going to be a competitive country, for us to educate
our youth and make sure that everyone is college
and career ready. And that’s why we have so
heavily invested in education. One of the first ways that we
did that was actually when we passed the recovery act
last January or February. Overall we saved or created
about 300,000 teacher jobs, jobs in education. In fact, we saved about 15,000
jobs in the state of New Jersey alone. We are continuing that work. There’s still money that’s going
to be going out to the states over the coming months. And we’ve also heavily
invested in education. You can look at the President’s
most recent budget, his budget for FY 2011, and see that where
other — we made cuts in other places to try and be fiscally
conservative or fiscally smart. The Department of Education
actually received an increase, because we believe it’s so
important to advance reform, to try and stabilize jobs, to keep
teachers in classrooms, and make sure that every student has
a complete and competitive education. Mr. Vargas:
This next question
that’s going to come for us is actually from Matt Sirkowski,
who’s a sophomore at Towson University, Maryland, who’s
paying 80% of his college education through student loans. We’re having a bit of a
technical issue here. One second. They did a really good job
making sure that they come from a really personal story, as
you’ll see with Matt right here. Mr. Sirkowski:
Hey. My name is Matt Sirkowski, and
I’m a 19-year-old sophomore at Towson University. I come from a middle-class
family, and do receive some support from my parents
in paying for college. However, I am paying for
about 80% of my tuition, fees, books, et cetera,
through student loans. I can see other students in my
situation who are struggling as their loans continue to build
up and their financial aid continues to decline. My question to you is, what do
you plan for the students who are building up so much student
debt that continuing an education seems to be costing
them more than they will gain? Secretary Duncan:
It’s a great question. I appreciate Matt’s hard work. And his wallet was looking a
little bit thin there, so — (laughter) — I feel bad. I remember those feelings well,
let me tell you, in college, when you’re struggling to find a
few dollars to buy a pizza once in a while. And again, when we talk about
historic increases in Pell grants, $36 billion, those are obviously not loans, those are grants, and just an
unbelievable breakthrough. And all of that funding going
forward was done without going back to taxpayers for a dime,
simply by stopping subsidizing banks. In terms of repaying loans that
he currently has, again, capping loan repayments at 15% of income, so that those loan repayments are not unduly harsh
or burdensome going forward. And then finally, this
income-based repayment, I keep coming back to it, because I
think it’s so important, if Matt or other folks choose to go into
the public sector, after ten years of service, any debt
remaining, all of it will be erased, will be forgiven. And so we want that next
generation of folks to think about this call to service,
to think about serving their communities. And it’s a great
way to help out. And those financial impediments
that have been there for decades are literally gone. That’s the law today. Ms. Barnes:
And I think one
thing that’s so important with Pell grants, since we’ve been
in office, you know, Secretary Duncan and the President have
been working together to increase the Pell grant
award by about $800. That’s before this — even this
most recent law was signed into law about two weeks ago. And because of that new law,
we’re going to make sure that Pell grants keep pace with
inflation and the cost of going to college, so they’ll be
realistic and they’ll really be able to help students and help
them take care of a significant portion of their
college expenses. Ms. Litman:
Great. The next
question is from– Mr. Vargas:
We’ll find the question. Ms. Litman:
Hold on just a minute. Mr. Vargas:
One second. Ms. Litman:
Sorry for the technical problem. Secretary Duncan:
That’s all right. Ms. Barnes:
No, this is great. Ms. Litman:
Do you mind if I ask
a personal question? Secretary Duncan:
Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. (laughter) Ms. Litman:
Earlier you answered
the question about cost-based affirmative action
and you talked about making college more affordable, but
you didn’t really talk about admissions. And I think that’s one of the
big problems for students is a minority student from a
wealthy suburb has the same opportunities as a white
student, but the same isn’t true for poorer communities. So can you talk at all about
admission standards and how you feel about it? Secretary Duncan:
Yeah, I think every
university that I know of wants to have a more diverse
student body, and folks are working really hard at that. I would actually argue that we
have to do a lot — and Melody touched on this earlier — we
have to do a lot more to make sure that more minority students
are college and career ready. And then in far too many places
standards have been dummied down, we’ve had low
expectations, we’ve lied to students and told them they’re
doing okay and they’re not. And so when we talk about
college probate standards, a high bar for everybody, when we
talk about setting the highest of expectations, when we talk
about making sure we have the hardest working, the most
committed teachers and principals in those historically
underserved communities, there’s this huge pool of talent out
there that just hasn’t had those opportunities. And we talk so much about the
achievement gap, I always — I much prefer to talk about what
I call the opportunity gap. And I’m convinced, if we can
close the achievement gap and do some things in very, very
different ways than we have in the past, we can exponentially
increase the number of young African-American, Latino
students going into higher education. But we have to make sure that pipeline isn’t broken. Our dropout rate in this
country is unacceptably high. Those students who do graduate
from high school, far too many aren’t truly college-ready. They’re having to
take remedial classes. They’re not prepared
to make that next step. And so I don’t blame — you
know, universities, I think, want a diverse student body. They’re working hard to do it. I think we have to dramatically
increase that talent pool. It’s out there. In this K to 12 reform that
we’re pushing, if we can fundamentally break through in
the ways I think we will, I think going forward you’ll see
many, many more students of color having the chance not just
to go to college, but to be successful and graduate, and do
it from some of the nation’s most prestigious universities. Ms. Litman:
So it’s not about
admissions standards, it’s about making high schools better — Secretary Duncan:
Admissions standards
are a piece of it — Ms. Litman:
Yeah. Secretary Duncan:
— but I think we’re fighting for a tiny slice of the pie. There are only — today, there
are not enough highly qualified African-American and Latino
students to go to the Northwesterns of the world. I want to expand that
pool dramatically. Those great students are out
there, we have to give them better opportunities. Ms. Barnes:
And even starting —
there’s so much work to be done K through 12, but even
starting earlier than that. And that’s something that
Secretary Duncan, Secretary Sebelius, the President, the
Domestic Policy Council are working very hard on,
looking at early learning. You know, from the moment a
child is born, we have to make sure that they are prepared to
go to kindergarten ready to learn, able to read, so that
then they’re prepared for that great K through 12 experience. So we’ve got to bring up the
quality and the standards. That’s something that we were
working towards in the bill that included higher education. We didn’t get that done there,
but we’re looking for other ways to get that done. Mr. Vargas:
I mean, so, clearly
it’s a comprehensive strategy. I mean, I must really thank you
guys and commend you for sitting down. You know, this is something
that we’re hoping that we can continue to do, having kind of
a direct interaction between college students and, of course,
the highest, you know, Cabinet members in the administration. So, hopefully we can
do this again sometime. Thank you so much for having us. Secretary Duncan:
We look forward to — this is
why we come to work every day. There are great, great students
around the country, this is our motivation, so thanks
for the opportunity. The questions, as Melody
said, were just phenomenal. Mr. Barnes:
Great and Thanks.

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