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By almost any measure, President Obama has worked hard to fulfill the ambitious higher education goals he articulated early in his presidency.
By 2020, he said the nation should reclaim its place as the country with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Currently, the United States comes in at No. 16. Obama also said that even if students have no plans to complete college, they should commit to one year of post-secondary training.
Those are no easy tasks. But Obama has pushed hard to make them possible, pumping unprecedented sums into colleges and community colleges. He has worked to make higher education more transparent, and to make the financial aid process easier to navigate.
The economic imperative driving Obama’s efforts are obvious. More than half of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the country require postsecondary education. Most of those are technology-related. The ones that aren’t most often do not pay a living wage. So, the choice is clear: The nation’s young people, who every year become increasingly Black and Hispanic, need to become better educated if they hope to maintain or surpass the standard of living enjoyed by their parents.
The president’s goals may be clear, but the path to achieving them is anything but. It has been made more arduous by an economic downturn that has crippled the finances of many families, making it harder for them to save for college. The downturn also has shattered the budgets of many states and cities, which have responded by making once unthinkable cuts in education spending, undercutting the federal increases pushed by Obama.
The president’s efforts to expand access to higher education are also being undermined by the spiraling cost of college. Under Obama, the maximum federal Pell Grant has increased to $5,635 — a $905 increase since 2008. But at the same time, average tuition at a four-year public college in the country has jumped by $1,846, according to the College Board.
Large price increases are a longstanding and increasingly high-profile problem in higher education. Between 1982 and 2006, median family incomes rose by 147 percent. During that same time period, college tuition and fees skyrocketed by 439 percent, a fact that undoubtedly has discouraged many lower-income people from seeing college a viable option.
Others are taking on more debt to pay for college, as recent graduates carry an average of $26,000 in loans. Worse, almost one-third of federal borrowers have either defaulted on their loans or is in some sort of forbearance status, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Still, the value of a college degree is unquestionable. Estimates are that the difference in lifetime earnings between someone holding a college degree and just a high school diploma ranges between $700,000 and $1 million.
The landscape gets even more complicated when considering the differences between colleges. Even as an increasing number of Black and Latino students have been going on to college, they most often end up in open admission schools where, on average, a lower percentage of students graduate and even those who do go on to earn less than their counterparts in the 468 top colleges in the country, according to a recent report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
“The American postsecondary system increasingly has become a dual system of racially separate pathways, even as overall minority access to the postsecondary system has grown dramatically,” says Jeff Strohl, the Georgetown center’s director of research, who co-authored the report “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege.”
All of these things have made Obama’s laudable goals difficult to achieve. On one hand, he has pumped more money into the higher education system to open up access. On the other hand, that money, which the administration calls the biggest investment in higher education since the GI Bill, has not been enough to make college affordable for many struggling Americans.
His administration tightened some loan standards with the goal of ensuring that parents do not get in over their heads borrowing money to send their children to school. But that effort has triggered unintended consequences that have landed particularly hard on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Last fall, the tougher screening standards for PLUS loans resulted in 28,000 HBCU students, and 200,000 overall, being denied loans last fall. For HBCUs, the collective loss was more than $150 million.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus called on Obama to address the problem, which has led to budget difficulties for several Black colleges.
In a speech earlier this year, the president promised to push for significant reform in higher education, in large part by doing more to control what colleges charge.
“I will lay out an aggressive strategy to shake up the system, tackle rising costs, and improve value for middle-class students and their families. It is critical that we make sure that college is affordable for every single American who’s willing to work for it," he said in a speech at Knox College in Illinois.
The president pointed out that he has worked to expand the availability of financial aid money and to keep the lid on federal student loan interest rates. Still, he acknowledged, that has not been enough.
“Families and taxpayers can’t just keep paying more and more and more into an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up. We’ll never have enough loan money; we’ll never have enough grant money, to keep up with costs that are going up 5, 6, and 7 percent a year. We’ve got to get more out of what we pay for," Obama said.
He applauded colleges that are looking for ways to shorten the path to a degree, or blending teaching with online learning to help students earn credits in less time.He also said that he likes the idea of holding colleges more accountable for how students perform once they are on campus.
At a White House ceremony to sign a bill to reduce interest rates for federal college loans, Obama talked about the competing factors involved in making college more accessible. Still, he said, he remains committed to his goals.
“The cost of college remains extraordinarily high. It’s out of reach for a lot of folks, and for those who do end up attending college, the amount of debt that young people are coming out of school with is a huge burden on them; it’s a burden on their families,” he said. “It makes it more difficult for them to buy a home. It makes it more difficult for them if they want to start a business. It has a depressive effect on the economy overall. And we've got to do something about it.”
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