College Affordability and Student Loans Discussed at White House Roundtable Event

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Dexter McCoy discussed college affordability and student loans with Secretary Arne Duncan and Dr. Jill Biden. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Dexter McCoy knew that going to college was the right decision for his future, but after graduating this spring from Boston University, he has something else on his mind: repaying about $30,000 in student loans.

Far too many American students, like Dexter, and their families are worried about paying for college or are struggling with student loan payments. Over the past five years, the Administration has been listening to students tell their stories and has taken steps to help – including increasing the maximum Pell Grant by about $1,000 and providing loan repayment options like Pay As You Earn, which caps monthly payments at an amount that based on how much you’re making so student loan bills are more manageable.

But we want to do more. That’s why today, Dexter joined more than a dozen recent graduates, education advocates, economists, and college presidents for a discussion with Dr. Jill Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the White House about college affordability and student loans.

“It’s the story of many people my age across the country,” Dexter said. “It’s really important to me that the White House is taking steps to address this issue.”

Secretary Duncan and Dr. Biden believe that a college education is absolutely critical to strengthening the lives of American families and the country’s economy.

“We all recognize that going to college has never been more important than it is today. Unfortunately it’s also never been more expensive,” Secretary Duncan said. “Somehow, we have to find ways to reduce that burden.”

As the voices around the table continued to stress, higher education has increasingly felt out of reach for middle-class families and students, with many feeling overwhelmed and not sure how to navigate either the college selection or student loan repayment process, or like costs continue to escalate with little relief.

For Dr. Biden, the themes that were shared were similar to those she hears every day as a full-time community college teacher. Her students juggle work, families and school, but they are committed to getting an education and building a better life.

“That’s why college affordability is so critical,” Dr. Biden said. “And we need to make sure there’s an affordable path to higher education for all, and not just a luxury for a few.”

That’s something the Administration has taken to heart. As many leaders today stressed, being able to access and complete college is important not just for the lives of individual Americans, but also for the economic strength of our country.

On Monday, the President will talk more about this issue. Over the coming months, we will continue to act to ensure that all students – especially minority students and those from lower-income and historically underserved backgrounds – are able to afford a quality higher education.

Sara Gast is director of strategic communications at the U.S. Department of Education.

Seeing Success in Hawaii: Duncan’s 50th State as Secretary

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Students at the Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao Public Charter School perform the hula for U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan during his visit on March 31, 2014, in Nanakuli, Hawaii. Photo By Eugene Tanner.

Andrea, a senior at Hawaii’s Waipahu High School, came to the U.S. just four years ago after emigrating from the Philippines, but now she’s a proud Waipahu Marauder. From her first day in the classroom, she found the “opportunity to explore” and became interested in cancer research and science.

This fall, thanks to her dedication and the teachers she has at Waipahu, she’ll attend Columbia University on a full-ride scholarship.

Andrea was one of many students Secretary Duncan met during a visit to Oahu earlier this week, which also included stops at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for a discussion with military families and a visit to Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao Public Charter School.  During Duncan’s visit to Waipahu, Andrea presented her AP Biology project – “Synthesizing a STAT3 Dimerization Inhibitor Molecule via Retrosynthetic Analysis” – and explained the partnership with the University of Hawaii’s Cancer Center that helped her to pursue her research. “What I’ve learned here is if you want to do something, you can find a way to do it,” she said.

Waipahu High School, located about 20 minutes outside of Honolulu, provides a number of educational programs, with each incoming student picking a “College and Career Theme” to explore. Students at Waipahu High School learn through pathways, which are smaller learning communities that encourage students to identify their career interests and take relevant courses while in high school. They have the opportunity to take classes in programs like creative media, culinary arts, engineering, finance, law and justice administration, and teacher education. Waipahu also offers tuition-free early college courses.

Michael, also a senior at Waipahu, has seen a growth in his abilities since he started as freshman. Despite starting on the school’s business track “not knowing anything,” Michael has been able to excel. “I was able to make connections with what I was learning … and I saw a change in my grades,” he said. A recent project allowed him to combine his budding business knowledge with his passion for woodwork by designing a business where he could sell the skateboards he creates using natural wood and varnish. The school has enabled him to able to explore art in other areas, too. Michael was able to help paint words like “courage,” “ambition,” “honor” and “integrity” – which he says are “words that encompass who we are” – onto the steps of Waipahu High School.

A focus on relevant, hands-on experiences is a theme among programs at Waipahu. During a tour of the school, students led Secretary Duncan through their research and studies of fish as part of an aquaponics system in the Natural Resources Academy Pathway. Teacher Jeff Garvey, who Secretary Duncan called the “mastermind” behind the aquaponics system, used his private-sector background to build the open-air center and create the chance for students to study aquaponics, which combines fish and plants in a symbiotic, sustainable environment.  The program is rapidly expanding as interest grows, including from nearby eighth graders who want enroll at Waipahu. And despite worries that the system would be hard to maintain, Garvey points to students’ leadership with the center. “Give them ownership, and they take care of it,” he said.

Waipahu serves mostly minority students, and most are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite those challenges, from 2011-2013, proficiency scores on state tests have risen, as have college-going rates. In that same time, the number of suspensions was nearly cut in half.

Waipahu’s growing success story is one of many throughout the state of Hawaii. The 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) results indicated that Hawaii was one of the top 5 fastest improving states in the country, with an 8-point increase in math for fourth and eighth grade, a 4-point increase in reading in fourth grade, and a 5-point increase in reading in eighth grade, when compared to 2009 NAEP results.

To accelerate its reform efforts and better support the state’s educators, Hawaii applied for and received a $75 million grant through Race to the Top in 2010. The grant has empowered the state’s leaders to collaborate in new ways and create plans tailored to their needs to prepare students to be ready for college and careers. Through these funds, the state has developed tools, like a classroom data dashboard and teacher-focused reports, to support teachers and school leaders to use timely and actionable data to improve instruction. Hawaii has also created tools to transition to higher standards and training to develop STEM expertise, and the state and community has supported schools that fall within the Zones of School Innovation to provide students with extended learning time, after-school and summer programs, and comprehensive wraparound services.

And the work is just beginning. State Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi credited the “catalytic nature of Race to the Top” in enabling the state to try new ideas and create new systems – “an opportunity we’ve taken with both hands” – and acknowledged this is just the start. Gov. Neil Abercrombie echoed that sentiment. “I ask anybody in the state, before you make a judgment about the public schools, see what’s been accomplished in the last three years. By any outside observation, Hawaii public schools are rising, and we’re going to keep on rising,” Abercrombie said.

Hawaii’s progress is thanks to leadership from state and administrative officials, teachers and principals, who have encouraged their students and provided new learning opportunities, even when there have been challenges and tough transitions. “These are profiles in courage,” Secretary Duncan said. “So much of what is going on here can be a model for the nation.”

Watch a short video about Waipahu High School.

Sara Gast is director of strategic communications at the U.S. Department of Education

Five Ways Race to the Top Supports Teachers and Students

In the four years since the Obama Administration announced its first Race to the Top grants, the President’s signature education initiative has helped spark a wave of reform across the country, according to a new report released today by the White House and Department of Education.

RTT States and AwardsSince the Obama administration announced the first Race to the Top grants to Tennessee and Delaware four years ago – many state and local leaders, educators, and communities are deep in the hard work of education improvement, and the nation is seeing progress.

Today, the innovations unleashed by Race to the Top are touching nearly half the nation’s students and 1.5 million teachers in schools across the country – for an investment that represents less than 1 percent of education spending.

Amid that climate of positive change, America’s educators, students and families have made major achievements. The high school graduation rate is now at its highest on record (80 percent). Student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are the highest since the test was first given 20 years ago. And there have been double- digit gains on state tests at some of the lowest-performing schools – many of which had not seen any improvement for decades.

Today’s report highlights examples of the most innovative and effective reforms that are taking place in states across the country to prepare students for college and careers, support educators, and spur innovative educational strategies. Below are five ways Race to the Top is supporting teachers and students.

1. Race to the Top Has Provided More Students with Access to Challenging Classes

Under Race to the Top, states have spearheaded efforts to create plans tailored to their students’ needs. For example, Massachusetts provided more students with access to AP classes by training more than 1,100 middle and early high school teachers to prepare their students for new, high academic standards. Initial findings from the external evaluation of Massachusetts’ college- and career-readiness initiatives indicate patterns of increased AP course-taking, exam-taking, and exam performance.

RTTAP2. Race to the Top Has Supported Hard-working Educators in New Ways

Under Race to the Top, schools and districts are making sure we have excellent principals leading our schools and skilled teachers who inspire students. In Rhode Island, the state had more than 400 first-year and 40 second-year teachers engage with the state’s new teacher induction program, which includes weekly coaching and professional development.

Delaware launched the Delaware Talent Cooperative, which provides retention awards – between $2,500 and $10,000 over two years – to highly effective educators and leaders willing to work and stay in schools with the highest needs.

3. Race to the Top Has Provided More STEM Opportunities to Students

Maryland developed and translated five STEM curriculum modules for use in language programs statewide, and in Florida, Race to the Top funds have helped hundreds of students from rural communities get new STEM opportunities through the STEM Scholars initiative.

4. Race to the Top is Helping Educators Transition to New Standards

With the help of Race to the Top, Ohio expanded alternative certification pathways for teachers and principals; developed 800 curriculum resources aligned to higher standards; and trained 24,000 teachers to use those resources. And in an ambitious and comprehensive effort, Tennessee provided 30,000 teachers with intensive summer training as part of its transition to the Common Core State Standards—more rigorous academic standards in English language arts and mathematics.

5. Race to the Top is Supporting States in Turning Around Lowest-Performing Schools

Under Race to the Top, states have designed plans to turn around some of their lowest-performing schools using new ideas that engage students and transform school culture. In Georgia, the state created two non-traditional schools to accommodate high school students at risk of dropping out. And in Tennessee, the state awarded grants or provided Tennessee Academic Specialists to address performance gaps at the 167 schools identified as Focus Schools based on significant achievement gaps in school year 2011-2012. Based on 2012-2013 state assessment results, the state made progress closing achievement gaps in these 167 schools.

Read the entire report: Setting the Pace: Expanding Opportunity for America’s Students under Race to the Top.

Sara Gast is director of strategic communications at the U.S. Department of Education

Department Announces New College Affordability and Value Outreach

Making college more affordable for American families has continued to be a key priority for the Obama Administration, and in August, President Obama proposed a comprehensive plan to address rising college costs and increase college affordability and value. Since his announcement, Department and Administration officials have traveled the country and met with a variety of higher education leaders to hear their thoughts about the three components of President Obama’s plan: paying colleges and students for performance, promoting innovations that cut costs and improve quality, and helping students manage their debt.

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, during the college affordability bus tour in Buffalo, N.Y., Aug. 22, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

As part of the proposal to pay college and students for performance, the Department is developing a college ratings system that will better inform families about college value and affordability and encourage institutions to improve, while ensuring that disadvantaged students are served well. Last week, we were excited to announce the first of four opportunities for the general public to interact with Department officials, as well as the broader education community, and share their ideas about how to develop the ratings and address the key themes of college access, affordability and outcomes.

Today, Secretary Duncan announced three additional open forums, in addition to other outreach efforts and events:

  • California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson, Calif., on Nov. 6
  • George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on Nov. 13
  • University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Nov. 15
  • Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 21

Over the coming months, we plan to engage as many stakeholder groups and individuals as possible to help us develop college ratings that are useful to students and take into account the diversity of America’s colleges and universities. As part of our outreach announcement today, we are also unveiling a new College Affordability and Completion website that will host updated information, including details on timing and registration for the open forums, as well as new outreach events.

The public forums will build on the Department’s outreach activities already underway and will coincide with the Department’s upcoming Request for Information (RFI) to ask data experts and researchers to weigh in on methods for creating college ratings. Since the President’s announcement, officials have met in  Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C,  with groups including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Historically Black Colleges and University Presidents’ Board of Advisors, the American Council on Education, student leadership associations, independent college groups in Massachusetts and California, presidents from Hispanic-Serving Institutions – and over the next few weeks will meet with community college and business leaders, parents, students, faculty, and more.

We want feedback from students and parents, state officials, college presidents from a variety of institutions, higher education faculty and administrators, businesses and industry leaders, researchers, data experts, higher education associations, innovators, philanthropies, policy leaders and others. If you can’t join us for an open forum, please submit your ideas by sending an e-mail to collegefeedback@ed.gov or by mail to the U.S. Department of Education headquarters in D.C. at the following address:

Attn: Josh Henderson
400 Maryland Ave SW, 7E313
Washington, DC 20202

 Sara Gast is director of strategic communications at the U.S. Department of Education