Graduate America

The president has a cradle-to-career education agenda. It starts by expanding high-quality early education. It continues with K-12 reforms that ensure every teacher is effective and that schools prepare students for success in college and the workplace. And it concludes with the largest investment in higher education since the GI Bill. The president’s higher education agenda is included in a bill, H.R. 3221, sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), which the House is scheduled to vote on this week.

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The agenda includes a comprehensive set of funding and policies to improve students’ access to higher education and to make college more affordable.

The centerpiece is to help students pay for college. Forty percent of students rely on Pell Grant scholarships to offset tuition every year. President Obama’s budget and Rep. Miller’s legislation will increase the maximum Pell Grant to $5,550 in the 2010-2011 academic year — $800 more than just two years ago. For the first time, future Pell Grant increases will be indexed to inflation, plus 1 percent. That will ensure, at long last, that the buying power of the Pell Grant does not lag far behind the cost of tuition.

The proposal also creates low-interest loans to 2.7 million students by adding $6 billion to the Perkins Loan program. These loans support low-income students — those who struggle the hardest to pay for and stay in college. New rules we’re proposing will help contain the cost of tuition at schools in the Perkins program. To qualify, a college or university will need to demonstrate that they are keeping their tuition affordable.

We also need to increase access to all forms of higher education. Jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as those requiring no college experience. The president’s agenda and Rep. Miller’s bill will support community colleges through the $12 billion American Graduation Initiative (AGI). The AGI will provide competitive grants for community colleges to increase access, quality, and achievement so that 5 million more students will graduate by 2020. AGI funds will also encourage institutions and states to ramp up efforts to improve students’ access to higher education and workforce training and to ensure students complete their degrees. The AGI will be a stimulus for innovative reforms that will accelerate student learning and success through partnerships of K-12 schools, businesses, and philanthropy. The AGI will also give higher education new opportunities to leverage the benefits of free educational resources available on the Web. These courses will offer the best subject matter content matched with the best cognitive science to optimize educational attainment.

In addition, the AGI will provide another $2.5 billion to dramatically increase college graduation rates. Today, about 40 percent of entering freshman do not complete their bachelor’s degree at the same institution within six years. For poor and minority students, the percentage is even higher. In the AGI,   President Obama and Rep. Miller are creating the College Access and Completion Fund to support states’ innovative efforts designed to increase postsecondary completion, particularly among minority students. This short-term investment will yield a set of best practices that will pay long-term dividends as a higher percentage of students finish their degrees.

Although the president’s American Graduation Initiative represents a significant investment in higher education, he is committed to fiscal responsibility. All of the costs will be paid for with savings in the current student loan program. These savings will come mostly from eliminating unnecessary subsidies to banks — a change that will save money for taxpayers and provide better service to students. All new loans will be initiated from the Direct Loan program.

Unlike bank loans, the direct loans inititated by my department are insulated from instability in financial markets — and guarantee that students will receive low-cost loans regardless of the economic conditions.

Now is the time for Congress to work with the president to ensure that our students can afford the higher education they need — and our country needs — to secure our economic future. Sixty-five years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the GI Bill to lay the foundation for the greatest economic growth in our country’s history. Today, the president and I are asking Congress to do the same for our children and future generations of college students to ensure educational opportunity for all.

Duncan is the secretary of education.