Remarks by the First Lady in Commencement Address to Dillard University



UNO Lakefront Arena

New Orleans, Louisiana


10:33 A.M. CDT

MRS. OBAMA:  Oh, my goodness!  Good morning!

 AUDIENCE:  Good morning.

 MRS. OBAMA:  I am so happy to be here with you all.  I’m proud to be here in the Big Easy.  Look at you all!  (Applause.) You look good. 

 STUDENT:  You do too! 

 MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you.  (Laughter.)  I want to start by thanking Nicole for that very kind introduction and for sharing her story, which is not too unfamiliar to me — because they told me I couldn’t be where I am, too.  So I want to thank Nicole.  I’m proud of her.  Thank you for the selfie; I think that’s the first selfie I’ve done at a commencement.  So, Nicole, you’re my first.  (Laughter.) 

And of course, I want to thank the Dillard University Choir.  Oh, oh, oh!  (Applause.)  Oh!  That’s all I can say.  It’s like you want to start something up in here, right?  (Laughter.)  It’s like, now we got a commencement going on up in here.  (Laughter.)  That was beautiful, beautiful.  Thank you so much.  

I also want to recognize Senator Mary Landrieu, who is here.  Let’s give her a hand.  (Applause.)  She has been a strong supporter of this university. 

I want to thank the Dillard University Board of Trustees.  I want to thank the faculty, the staff, and, of course, your tremendous president, Dr. Walter Kimbrough.  (Applause.)  Now, my husband has been called a few things over the years, but he has never had the honor of being referred to as the “Hip Hop President.”  (Applause.) 

I also want to thank all the folks from the University of New Orleans for hosting us here today.  And I know they’re hosting the folks at Southern University at New Orleans for their commencement later on today as well, so we wish them a wonderful day.  And thank you for having us.  (Applause.) 

And of course, I’ve got to give a big shout-out to all the family members in the crowd, all of the family members — (applause) — especially to the mothers, because it is the day before Mother’s Day.  To all the mothers, Happy Mother’s Day.  (Applause.) 

Now, graduates, you all handled your business, right?  Just because you were graduating didn’t mean you — come on, now.  (Laughter.)  Okay, well, if you didn’t, you have my permission to get up and go right now, because there is nothing more important — no, no, don’t get up.  (Laughter.)  Your mothers would kill you if you got up at this moment.  (Laughter.)  So just stay in your seats, and when this is all over make sure you take care of mom.

But in all seriousness, to all the moms out there –- as well as the dads and the grandparents, the uncles, the aunts, the brothers, the sisters, all of you who have helped raise these graduates — you have seen them through their ups and downs, and you have poured your hearts and souls into these men and women.  So today is your day, too, and you should be very proud.  You really should.  (Applause.) 

And finally, most of all, I want to congratulate the beautiful and handsome men and women of the Dillard University Class of 2014.  Yay!  (Applause.)  You all have come so far, I know, to make it to this day — from all those early days when the girls were sneaking out of Williams Hall to go see the boys over at the Duals — oh yeah, I did my research — (laughter) — to all those tests you crammed for, to the plans you’re making now for your careers, to go on to graduate school.   

You all have seen so much.  You’ve witnessed this school’s rebirth after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina –- the new buildings that replaced the ones you lost, the classrooms that started filling back up again, the service projects that you all have done to help this community bounce back.  And I know along the way that each of you has written your own story of resilience and determination to make it here to this day.

For example, as you heard, Nicole was told back in high school that she just wasn’t college material.  But now she is your class president, and she’s headed off to Yale for her graduate degree.  So there.  (Applause.)  That’s it. 

And I know that some of you may come from tough neighborhoods; some of you may have lost your homes during Katrina.  Maybe you’re like DeShawn Dabney, a graduate who was raised by his grandmother — (applause) — maybe — that’s your grandmother, isn’t it, DeShawn?  (Laughter.)  Raised by his grandmother while some of his family members were dealing with issues.  Maybe just like him, you’ve been working part-time jobs since you were a teenager to make your dream of going to college come true.  And now, today, you’re all here ready to walk across this stage and get that diploma.

And no matter what path you took to get here, you all kept your hearts set on this day.  You fought through every challenge you encountered, and you earned that degree from this fine university.  And in doing so, you are following in the footsteps of all those who came before you, and you have become an indelible part of the history of this school –- a history that, as you all know, stretches back to well before the Civil War, back to 1826, the year a child named Emperor Williams was born. 

Now, Emperor was born into slavery.  But as he grew up, he managed to teach himself to read and write well enough to create a pass that allowed him to come and go around the city without getting hassled.  But one day, his master saw the pass and he said, where did you learn to write like that?  Now, just imagine the fear Emperor must have felt when he heard that question — because remember, back then it was illegal for a slave to learn to read or write.  So who knows what kind of punishment he may have gotten –- a beating, a whipping, even worse. 

We don’t exactly know what happened on that day, but we do know that when Emperor turned 32, after more than three decades in bondage, he became a free man.  He decided to stay in New Orleans, and he went on to become a minister — even founded a church right here in town.  And in 1869, when abolitionists, missionaries, black folks and white folks came together to create a school for freed slaves here in New Orleans, Emperor was one of the original signers of the charter.  

They decided to name the school New Orleans University, because even though most of the classes would be taught at a high school level or below, oh, their aspirations were much higher than that.  And when they laid the cornerstone for that university’s first building down on St. Charles Avenue, Emperor got a chance to speak. 

He said — and these are his words — he said, “For twenty years I was a slave on these streets.  It was a penitentiary offense to educate a Negro.  I have seen my fellow-servants whipped for trying to learn; but today here I am [am I], speaking where a building is to be erected for the education of the children of my people.”  He goes on to say, “I wonder if this is the world I was born in.”

See, in the course of his short lifetime, Emperor saw education go from being a crime for black folks to being a real possibility for his kids and grandkids.  So no wonder he was asking whether this was the same world he’d been born into.  See, for a man like Emperor, getting an education could open up a whole new world of opportunity.  An education meant having real power.  It meant you could manage your own money.  It meant you couldn’t get swindled out of land or possessions when somebody told you to just sign on the dotted line; sometimes even determined whether or not you could vote. 

So most folks back then saw education as the key to real and lasting freedom.  That’s why, when New Orleans University and the other African American college in town, Straight University, first opened their doors, one of the biggest problems they faced was too many students.  That’s right –- too many students.  Many of these students barely spoke English; they’d grown up speaking Creole or French.  Few had ever seen the inside of a classroom or even been taught their ABCs. 

But let me tell you, those students were hungry — you hear me?  Hungry.  They studied like their lives depended on it.  They blazed through their lessons.  And that hunger for education lasted for generations in the African American community here in New Orleans. 

When an arsonist set fire to the school’s library in 1877, they built a new one.  When those two original schools ran into financial troubles years later, they started making plans to build an even bigger and better university.  And in the 1930s, when white folks complained that this new school would mean too many black students on their buses, the folks at the school got the city to add a bus line just for their students, because nothing –- nothing –- was going to stop them from achieving the vision of those early founders.  (Applause.)   

And finally, in May of 1934, they broke ground for this school, Dillard University — (applause) — a university that would go on to produce some of the leading thinkers and achievers in our country.  And the day the cornerstone was laid for your library, the President of Howard University spoke these words:  He said, “There lies in this Southland today, buried in unmarked graves, many a black genius who would have blessed this city and this section of our country, if [only] his parents could have had before them the Dillard University you are now building.”

And in the years since then, through segregation and depression, through threats of violence and the floodwaters of a devastating storm, students like you have come here to study and to learn, and to carry forward those hopes and dreams.  And today, I stand before a sea of young geniuses.  Oh, yeah.  (Applause.) 

So, graduates, I hope that you understand that this day is not just the culmination of your own dreams, but the realization of the dreams of so many who came before you.  And you should be so proud, and so happy, and so excited about your futures.  But what you shouldn’t be is satisfied.  (Applause.)  See, because while it is a wonderful thing that all of you are here today, we have to ask ourselves, what about all those geniuses who never get this chance? 

I’m talking about the young people from right here in New Orleans and across the country who aren’t part of a commencement like this one today, kids no different from all of us, kids who never made it out of high school.  The fact is that today, the high school graduation rate for black students is improving, but it is still lower than just about any other group in this country.  And while college graduation rates have risen for nearly every other demographic, including African American women, the college graduation rate for African American men has flatlined. 

See, and the thing is, when our young people fall behind like that in school, they fall behind in life.  Last year, African Americans were more than twice as likely as whites to be unemployed.  They were almost three times as likely to live in poverty.  And they were far more likely to end up in prison or be the victims of violent crimes. 

Now, perhaps when you hear these statistics, you might think to yourself, well, those numbers are terrible, but I’m not part of the problem.  And you might be thinking that since you’re not one of those statistics, and you’re sitting here wearing that nice black robe today, you can go on your way and never look back. 

But folks like you and me, we can’t afford to think like that — never.  See, because we’re the lucky ones, and we can never forget that we didn’t get where we are today all on our own.  We got here today because of so many people who toiled and sweat and bled and died for us — people like our parents and grandparents and all those who came before them, people who never dreamed of getting a college education themselves but who worked, and saved, and sacrificed so that we could be here today.  We owe them.  (Applause.)  We owe them. 

And the only way to pay back that debt is by making those same kinds of sacrifices and investments for the next generation. And I know sitting here right now, that task could seem a bit overwhelming.  I know it could seem like the deck is stacked way too high against our young people.  And the truth is that some of the problems we face –- structural inequality, schools that lag behind, workplace and housing discrimination -– those problems are too big for one person to fix on their own. 

But that’s still no excuse to stand on the sidelines.  Because we know that today, education is still the key to real and lasting freedom — it is still true today.  So it is now up to us to cultivate that hunger for education in our own lives and in those around us.  And we know that hunger is still out there –- we know it. 

We see it in students like DeShawn and Nicole and all of you who scraped and clawed so you could make it to this day.  We see it in the single moms who work three jobs so their kids might have a shot at earning a degree like yours.  (Applause.)  We see that hunger all around the world — in that young woman named Malala who was shot on her school bus in Pakistan just for speaking out in support of girls getting an education, and the more than 200 girls kidnapped from their own school in Nigeria for wanting an education -– (applause) — young people who are knowingly risking their lives every day just to go to school. 

And in fact, you’ve seen that hunger right here at Dillard: your valedictorian, three salutatorians are all from Nigeria.  (Applause.)  They studied hard at an early age, earned scholarships to come here to this university, achieved 4.0 GPAs.  And now they are off pursuing master’s degrees, work in software development, teaching math and science to young people here in the United States.

See, now, that’s the kind of hunger for education that we have to reignite in all of our communities.  It’s the same hunger that gave life to this university, the same hunger that defined so many of our parents and grandparents — including my own.  You see, my parents never went to college, but they were determined to see me and my brother and all the kids in our neighborhood get a good education.  (Applause.)   

So my mother volunteered at my school — helping out every day in the front office, making sure our teachers were doing their jobs, holding their feet to the fire if she thought they were falling short.  I’d walk by the office and there she’d be.  (Laughter.)  I’d leave class to go to the bathroom, there she’d be again, roaming the halls, looking in the classrooms.  And of course, as a kid, I have to say, that was a bit mortifying, having your mother at school all the time. 

But looking back, I have no doubt that my classmates and I got a better education because she was looking over those teachers’ shoulders.  (Applause.)  You see, my mom was not a teacher or a principal or a school board member.  But when it came to education, she had that hunger.  So she believed that our education was very much her business. 

And we need more people who think and act like my mother, and all those mothers out there, because the education of our young people is all of our business.  That’s what Emperor Williams thought.  That’s what the folks here in New Orleans thought as they worked to rebuild this campus after Katrina.  And as graduates of Dillard University, that’s how we need you to think every single day for the rest of your lives.  

You all have opportunities and skills and education that so many folks who came before you never could have dreamed of.  So just imagine the kind of impact that you’re going to make.  Imagine how you can inspire those around you to reach higher and complete their own education.

And you can start small.  Start by volunteering at an after-school program, or helping some high school kids fill out their college applications.  Show them the path that you took.  Or you can think a little bigger — you can get your entire congregation or your community to start a mentoring program; maybe convince your new employer to sponsor scholarships for underprivileged kids.  Or maybe you could think a little higher — maybe you could run for school board or Congress, or, yes, even President of the United States.  (Applause.)   

And then maybe you could build preschools for every single one of our kids.  Maybe you could help turn that pipeline to prison into a highway to college; help give every child in America an education that is truly worth of their promise.  Those are the kind of big dreams that folks who founded this university reached for.  That is how high they set their bar. 

And so we owe it to those folks –- the folks who had the audacity to call their little schools “universities” and name their baby boys “Emperor” –- we owe it to them to reach as high as they did, and to bring others along the way.  As the history of this school has taught us, no dream is too big, no vision is too bold; as long as we stay hungry for education and let that hunger be our North Star, there is nothing, graduates, nothing that we cannot achieve. 

So, graduates, that is your mission.  This is your obligation.  I want you to keep reaching higher.  I want you all to keep raising your bars.  Let the next generation know that there is no greater investment than a good education.  And if you do all of this, then I am confident that you will uphold that duty and write your own chapter into the legacy of this great university.  And let me tell you something, I cannot wait to see the world that your children will be born into.  

Congratulations.  I love you all.  I am honored to be here.  I am proud of you.  God bless you.  And thank your families.  (Applause.)

                     END                10:56 A.M. CDT

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education to the National HBCU Week Conference: The Enduring and Evolving Role of HBCUs

September 26, 2013

It is always important to me, and I always look forward to the opportunity to address the National HBCU Conference. This year in particular we are at a challenging, pivotal moment in supporting both the enduring and the evolving role of HBCUs.

Just four days from now, Republicans on Capitol Hill are threatening to shut down the government.

That is no way to win the race for the future. In a knowledge-based, globally-competitive economy, you won’t see nations that are out-educating us cutting funding for preschool, for hiring teachers, and for expanding college access. They are not managing their educational strategy via sequester—and I wonder why in America we continue to cut off our nose to spite our face.

On top of that grave threat to additional investment in preschool, K-12, and HBCUs, this has been a difficult year for HBCUs with PLUS loans.

I have talked with many of the people here in this room about the PLUS loan challenge. It has been hard, it has been frustrating, and I know some of you are angry.

I am not satisfied with the way we handled the updating and changes to the PLUS loans program. However, some have said we are choosing not to reverse the policy because we don’t care, and nothing—nothing—could be further from the truth.

Our department is required to carry out the law as it was designed to protect parents and taxpayers against unaffordable loans. But we could have and should have handled the process better.

Communications internally and externally was poor, and I apologize for that, and for the real impact it has had. That’s why we’ve announced that we will initiate a new rule-making process on this issue early next year.

Jim Shelton, our deputy secretary—and by the way, a proud Morehouse Man—will provide a more detailed update on the PLUS loans situation later this morning. This is personal for him—as it is for so many of our team and for me.

The good news is that we are making progress. But I continue to remain concerned about students and families who were denied loans and may still qualify for reconsideration, but have not yet applied.

We are committed to doing everything we can to make sure students get all of the financial aid they are eligible to receive. And we have communicated directly with applicants that we believe would benefit from having their application reconsidered.

Now, I am hoping that the very serious challenges of the moment will also provide the opportunity to reset the public dialogue on HBCUs.

I believe strongly that HBCUs must not just survive but thrive as we move ahead.

I believe strongly that HBCUs will continue to make enduring contributions to America—and that HBCUs must also evolve.

And I believe strongly that we must shift the narrative around HBCUs from one centered on management and operational challenges to a narrative centered on the collective commitment to creative investment and innovation.

Too many Americans are unfamiliar with the staggering accomplishments of HBCUs. Most of America’s civil rights giants were educated at HBCUs—Dr. King, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, and Thurgood Marshall.

In our time, Jesse Jackson, Andy Young, Barbara Jordan, Congressman John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman, and Doug Wilder all earned their degrees at HBCUs.

Legendary artists and authors came out of HBCUs—Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison.

Yet what is most impressive about the HBCU record is not just your famous alumni. It is that HBCUs, working with meager resources, almost single-handedly created an African-American professional class in the face of decades of Jim Crow discrimination.

Even today, more than a half-century after the demise of Jim Crow laws, HBCUs continue to have an outsized impact in educating black professionals.

We have over 7,000 institutions of higher education across the country, 106 of which are HBCUs. But in 2010, HBCUs still awarded a sixth of all bachelor degrees and professional degrees earned by African Americans in the U.S.

So, the tremendous historic role of HBCUs must endure—but it must evolve as well. To cite just one example, HBCUs must play a leading role in ensuring that America reaches President Obama’s goal of having the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020.

The U.S. can only lead the world again in college attainment if an unprecedented number of Americans enroll in and complete college. If we want to strengthen families, if we want to strengthen communities, if we want to increase social mobility, the best way to do that is through educational opportunity.

The math here is pretty simple. To reach the President’s 2020 goal, student populations with high dropout rates—especially minority students—will have to exponentially increase their college graduation rates.

This is not just about access—this is about attainment. Nationwide, only about one in four—28 percent—of young black adults have received a college degree.

But we know that African Americans have the highest proportion of adults who have some college but not a degree of any major racial group. Almost 18 percent of African Americans aged 25 years and older—nearly one in five adults—went to college but left without their degree.

That college completion shortfall is both a tragic squandering of talent and an unprecedented opportunity to do better.

So, in the years ahead, we want HBCUs to continue to be known not just for their storied alumni but for leading the way for all institutions in educating and graduating African American college students.

We want HBCUs to be known not just for their illustrious legacy of inventors like George Washington Carver but for their ongoing contributions in the world of science, technology, engineering, and math.

We want HBCUs to be known not just for tailoring personal support for incoming minority students but to set the standard for other institutions in how to create a culture of completion for all students.

We want HBCUs to be known not only for their rich historical roots in teacher preparation but to show other institutions how to recruit and prepare a more diverse teaching workforce for the 21st century. All of our children benefit when they see more teachers of color and minority men in front of them in their classrooms.

And we want HBCUs to be known not just for their close ties to the community, but for innovatively adapting the lessons of meaningful collaboration and partnerships with K-12, community colleges, business, philanthropy, and international exchange programs.

Despite the very real challenges we all face, I have absolute confidence that this entrepreneurial evolution can happen—because I see it happening.

I’ve been to Hampton University and seen its cutting-edge Proton Therapy Institute for treating cancer. President Harvey’s vision there is extraordinary.

I’ve been to Morgan State, which, under President Wilson’s remarkable leadership, formed a groundbreaking partnership with the Universities Space and Research Alliance. Morgan State landed a $28 million contract—its biggest federal contract in history—to develop critical, cutting-edge expertise on climate issues and atmospheric science.

I’ve been to Xavier University, led by an icon, President Francis. Xavier awards more undergraduate degrees in the biological and physical sciences to African Americans than any university anywhere in the nation. It sends more African-American students to medical school than Harvard.

I’ve been to Fayetteville State, where Chancellor Anderson’s commitment to international education has led to the creation of dual-degree exchange agreements with five universities in China.

Last year, Fayetteville students could take a course in educational psychology and measurement taught concurrently by video to students at Baotow Teachers College in Inner Mongolia, China. And students from around the world come to see FSU’s Electron Microprobe—a rare, state of the art microscope.

At Morgan State, the university has created new exchange programs with Brazil. As President Wilson says, “Students today are waist-high in the water of globalization… To be the leaders [our] nation demands, they will need to speak the critical languages and understand the history of culture and nations different from their own… We do not live in silos anymore.”

I couldn’t agree more. We don’t live in silos anymore. And that’s one reason that innovations at HBCUs that reduce college costs and accelerate the path to a degree are so promising for all institutions of higher education.

Fayetteville State, for example, offers the only accelerated Masters of Social Work program in the country. The students in that program are full-time active duty members at Fort Sam Houston. They are paid by the Army to pursue their MSW degree six hours a day, five days a week.

And through distance learning, those off-site students are completing their requirements for a master’s degree in just one year instead of two. It’s a less expensive path to a degree—and it gives the Army more of the social workers it needs, faster.

When I spoke at the Fayetteville State commencement, two of the graduates had been the valedictorian and salutatorian at FSU’s on-campus Early College High School. Those students graduated from Fayetteville with degrees in criminal justice and mathematics barely two years after enrolling in college.

I’ve visited Howard University’s Middle School of Mathematics and Science—the dynamic, groundbreaking charter school that Howard established on its campus.

And Howard’s leaders didn’t stop there—they created the Ready to Teach program as well, which prepares African-American men to become teachers in five urban school districts.

When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I visited too many of our 500 elementary schools that did not have a single black male teacher. How can that be a good thing for young children, especially our boys?

With less than two percent—less than 1 in 50—of our nation’s teachers being black males, we need to support and expand programs like Ready to Teach.

Since 2007, Howard’s Ready to Teach program has received 780 applicants for 80 slots. Already, it has produced four teachers-of-the-year—and in the process helped dispel the destructive misconception that teaching schoolchildren is a profession somehow reserved for women.

The truth is that, from Philander Smith College in Arkansas to Elizabeth State University in North Carolina, HBCUs have shown how to teach first-generation college students the habits of success. You have been pioneers of smart retention strategies and accelerated developmental instruction.

Only at HBCUs are the president, the faculty, and the support staff most often like a second family to students.

The story at Morgan State is typical of that personalized, strategic approach to student support. Morgan State tracks students’ progress from the moment they set foot on campus. If a student doesn’t do well on a quiz or test, a counselor calls to make sure he or she is taking advantages of all the support services that MSU provides.

President Wilson unapologetically calls it “intrusive intervention”—and coupled with care and support, it works. In 2010, the one-year retention rate of MSU freshmen2010 increased five percentage points. This is a key strategy that other institutions of higher education can learn from to boost graduation and retention rates.

Jim Shelton is thrilled to be attending the HBCU Innovation Summit at the end of October. Michael Lomax and UNCF will host this inaugural national summit at Stanford University in Silicon Valley to help launch the HBCU Center for Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship.

HBCU presidents will attend—and 10 HBCUs are sending teams comprised of Deans, faculty, and students to share national best practices for enhancing the entrepreneurial capacity of HBCUs.

At the federal level, we are targeting additional funding to HBCUs to promote and support innovation. Last week, our Department awarded three-year Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program grants totaling almost $1.5 million to Florida A&M University and Texas College to increase the number of STEM students who enroll in and graduate in the STEM disciplines.

Texas College plans to use the federal dollars to revise their first-year and second-year STEM curriculum and to physically renovate classroom labs in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, and Computer Science.

Last week, we also awarded a $200,000 grant to Southern University in Baton Rouge to develop and validate a service model for increasing employment and integration into the community of African-Americans with disabilities.

I want to be absolutely clear: Support for innovation at HBCUs should be government-wide, and not just from the Department of Education. I’m excited that the Department of Energy awarded $9 million to nine HBCUs in South Carolina and Georgia to develop academic programs that promote minority involvement in STEM fields, especially in environmental management.

And just yesterday, the National Institutes of Health announced it has awarded planning grants to five HBCUs, totaling almost one million dollars in its new NIH BUILD initiative.

The NIH’s BUILD Consortium aims to increase the diversity of the NIH-funded workforce by boosting the enrollment of underrepresented college graduates in biomedical research and graduate training.

Fisk University is planning to use its NIH grant to build on its innovative Master’s-to-PhD Bridge program. It is going to launch a computer science Master’s degree program with a bridge to Vanderbilt’s PhD program in biomedical informatics.

Now, I am not at all naïve about the very real challenges that many HBCUs face in becoming leading centers of innovation, entrepreneurship, STEM research, and international education.

Too often at HBCUs, endowments are undercapitalized. Faculty salaries are low. And facilities are in need of repair.

Far too few students arrive on campus truly ready for college-level coursework. The need for remediation and support is huge. And when college presidents have to scramble to pay the utility bills, it is hard to find money for technology innovation and competency-based education.

These are daunting challenges. Yet even in a world with limited resources and underprepared students, HBCUs—just like other postsecondary institutions—vary significantly in their performance.

Leadership—your individual and collective leadership—matters. Some HBCUs are doing an amazing job of getting students in a cap-and-gown on graduation day, while others have work to do.

Some HBCUs are doing a good job of managing student debt and default—while other institutions have significant room for improvement.

I know that some of you are concerned that the college ratings system President Obama has asked our Department to develop will fail to take account of the special challenges facing HBCUs.

I can assure you that will not be the case—and let me tell you why.

As you know, President Obama assigned our Department to develop a college ratings system for the start of the 2015 school year. Under his plan, the college ratings system would be used to transform the way federal student aid is awarded to students, starting in 2018.

When President Obama unveiled his plan, he proposed a new idea that marks a major break from the past—and one that, I believe, actually elevates the value of effective and improving HBCUs.

President Obama said the federal government should “rate colleges based on opportunity: Are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed, and that [we should rate colleges] on outcomes—on their value to students and parents.”

We come to this important, complex work with great humility, and we will need your expert advice and best thinking. Over the course of the next year, we are going to solicit input on the ratings systems from literally hundreds and hundreds of stakeholders, including HBCU leaders, students, and parents.

We don’t begin to know yet all the metrics that will form the ratings system. But we do know that it will rely on multiple measures—not one or two crude measures of college value.

And we know that we’ll be seeking to make apples-to-apples comparisons of institutions, not apples-to-oranges comparisons. That is hugely important.

The ratings, in other words, will compare colleges with similar missions—and identify colleges that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds and colleges that are improving their performance.

We are interested in the progress schools are making. We want to reward institutions that are performing well—and demonstrating their commitment to improvement. Frankly, we are much more interested in where you are going than in where you have been. We’ll be looking, for example, at how successful colleges are at enrolling and graduating students who benefit from the Pell Grant program.

As President Obama put it, his “firm principle [is] that our ratings have to be carefully designed to increase, not decrease, the opportunities in higher education for students who face economic or other disadvantages.”

I don’t think any American president has articulated that standard for assessing college performance and value—and it is a standard that I think HBCUs should welcome.

I want to conclude by talking briefly about the future of HBCU funding—and the fierce budget battle now underway in Congress, even as we speak.

I very much share your frustration and concern about what the future holds for education funding, for minority students, and for all our nation’s students’ ability to go receive the education they need and deserve.

During the Administration’s first term, President Obama succeeded in securing large increases in higher education funding. Including Federal Student Aid, the Department’s overall support for HBCUs increased more than 40 percent from 2007 to 2012, from $3 billion to over $4 billion.

Since 2007, the Department has invested over $600 million in institutional loans for capital projects at HBCUs under the HBCU Capital Finance Program.

As you know, President Obama fought for and won a historic commitment to fully fund Pell Grants. Thanks to that victory, over the next decade, nearly 200,000 additional Pell Grant awards will go to African American students, and 20,000 of those will go to students at HBCUs.

Since the beginning of the Administration, Pell revenue to HBCUs is up almost 40 percent, from $608 million in 2008 to $835 million today.

Yet as important as this infusion of support was in the midst of the Great Recession, it wasn’t enough. In a perfect storm of budget cuts, states slashed their support for higher education even more. Congress, in the ultimate act of dysfunction, followed by imposing the sequester. And now Congress is threatening to continue squeezing funding for higher education.

In his 2014 budget, President Obama requested over $228 million in funding for HBCUs. But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has refused to take up the President’s budget.

The fact is that Washington is currently engaged in a bitter battle over two competing theories of education and its relationship to economic growth. And the outcome of this debate has enormous consequences for our children, our economic competitiveness, and for HBCUs.

President Obama and I firmly believe that the path to prosperity lies in smart investments in education and infrastructure. We believe that education is not just an expense but is the nation’s main engine for long-term economic growth. We believe it is the best investment we can make—in our young people, in our communities, in our nation.

The competing theory, of House Republicans and Tea Party leaders, is that the path to job creation and economic growth is simple—it is the advocates’ self-described, three-word plan: Cut, cut, cut.

They contend that economic growth will actually come from cutting government spending, cutting regulation, and cutting taxes. For them, education is just one more line on the government ledger that can be indiscriminately cut.

Unlike GOP governors outside of Washington, the cut-cut-cut legislators do not believe education is a necessary investment both to sustain economic growth and to create a path into the middle class.

When I started this job, almost five years ago, I never imagined that one day I would have to fight to try to dissuade members from Congress from cutting Head Start for three-year olds and four-year olds—even as they insist on the economic need to maintain tax breaks for the rich.

So, we are at the proverbial fork in the road: We will either support early childhood education, K-12 reform, and greater access to higher education, or we will allow other countries to out-educate and out-compete us. The stakes here are high. Please let Congress know what you believe—is education an expense or an investment?

As we head into this important debate, I am so fortunate to have a great team working with me on behalf of HBCUs.

Dr. Ivory Toldson, our new Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, is a prolific young scholar and myth buster. He has courageously debunked research and media coverage that perpetuates misleading stereotypes about African Americans. And he is a champion of increasing opportunities for black men, including teaching opportunities.

And I couldn’t be happier that our new Executive Director of the White House Initiative, Dr. George Cooper, has agreed to lead our team.

Like Dr. Toldson, Dr. Cooper’s reputation precedes him. As the former president of South Carolina State University—and throughout his long, distinguished career in academia—Dr. Cooper has been a staunch and thoughtful advocate for HBCUs for over three decades.

Over the next three months, Dr. Cooper and Dr. Toldson will be reaching out to you, making visits, and hosting important conversations to make sure we are hearing your ideas, your concerns, and getting your input and guidance. Don’t be shy—I know you won’t.

I’m going to turn this over to Dr. Cooper now. Please give him and Dr. Toldson a warm welcome—and thank you once again for the opportunity to speak with you today.

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