College completion and affordability tops Obama's agenda

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a phone conference with collegiate journalists Thursday to discuss President Barack Obama’s proposal to make college more accessible and affordable.

The proposal, called the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, passed in the House of Representatives 253-171 in September. Duncan said it is currently being looked at in the Senate.

Duncan said the fiscal 2011 budget includes “historic” increases for education across the board.

The budget includes 173 billion in loans, grants, tuition tax credits and work study programs to help students stay in college.

“That’s enough to help three out of five college students across the country,” Duncan said. “It invests heavily in education at every level from early childhood education, to K-12 reform, to college access and affordability.”

Duncan said the proposal will assist students when they first enter the education system until they graduate from college and move onto their careers.

“It’s a cradle to career agenda,” Duncan said. “One that starts at birth and follows children every step of the way, with the ultimate goal being that young adults graduate from either two-year or four-year colleges.”

Duncan believes America’s economic recovery and sustainability is dependant upon the education system.

“The president understands deeply, that America’s economic security depends on improving education,” Duncan said. “In 10 years, the jobs employers will be looking to fill will require a college degree or at least a professional certification.”

Duncan said most government spending is being frozen because of tough economic times, but investing in education is necessary for a prosperous future.

“We’re convinced that we have to educate our way to a better economy,” he said.

Duncan said the Department of Education is keeping a “laser-like focus” on college completion rates.

“A year ago, the president set an ambitious goal that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” he said.

Currently, roughly 40 percent of young adults complete college.

“A country that out educates us today will out compete us tomorrow,” Duncan said.

To meet the president’s goals, an additional 10 million students need to graduate from either community colleges or four year institutions.

Under the proposal, maximum Pell Grants will rise to $5,710 and automatically increase by a rate of 1 percent above inflation each year over the next decade.

Duncan estimates that by 2019, the Pell Grant will be worth $6,900.

The proposal also includes a $10.6 billion investment in improving the quality of community colleges.

“Community colleges are the gateway to the workforce and into higher education for millions of people,” Duncan said.

The White House is also proposing $500 million be used over the next decade to develop online learning resources.

“They will be free for students to take and institutes will determine the process by which credit is earned,” Duncan said. “You will be able to work on them at your own time and pace and it will also help control the cost of higher education.”

Duncan also noted that students can expect loan repayment to be easier.

An income-based repayment plan was passed into federal law July 1, but it caps loan repayment at 15 percent of the student’s income.

The new proposal reduces the amount to 10 percent.

“One million graduates will be able to take advantage of the income based repayment,” Duncan said. “Those who graduate will pay a max of 10 percent of their income towards their loan and the debt will be forgiven after 20 years.”

However, if students go into the public service sector, the debt will be forgiven in 10 years.

Duncan urged college students to consider going into education.

“We need as many as 1 million students going into teaching over the next five to eight years, due to baby boomers retiring,” he said.

Duncan said the bill constitutes the biggest investment in higher education since the GI Bill.

“We’re trying to be as holistic, comprehensive and creative as we can be…This bill needs to pass the Senate,” Duncan said.

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