Opportunity Across America: Achieving the College Dream

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Thank you, all. Thank you for that warm introduction. Good evening, Memphis.

I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you, Superintendent Hopson for the opportunity to join you. Thank you to the school board members who are here with us, to the community leaders and educators who are here with us. I want to thank particularly the teachers and principals of the Memphis schools for the work that you do every day. (Applause.)

I certainly want to thank Principal Durrah and the Craigmont community for welcoming us here.(Applause.)

I have heard great things about Craigmont. I've heard about the foreign exchange program. I've heard about the dual enrollment program. I've heard about the debate team and the robotics team and the championship basketball team and soccer team.(Applause.)

We are proud of you and we are proud to be here today.

I also want to thank all the students and teachers who are here from other high schools around Memphis and thank you for being a part of this conversation.(Applause.)

Let me ask a few questions of the students. How many of you plan to go to college? There we go.

How many of you will be the first in your family to go to college? That's right.

How many of you have already been talking to your high school counselors and teachers about what college you may want to choose?

So today's conversation is really about how we ensure that you pursue your dreams through higher education. And I want to make sure that every student in the room understands that the application process and the financial aid application process should not be obstacles to pursuing your dreams.

And so everything we're going to talk about today I want to ask you not only to take in yourselves, but also to carry with you to other students because we have too many young people in this country who get discouraged and dissuaded from pursuing their dreams. They go to their FAFSA and they say, "Oh, that's going to be too complicated to fill out." Or they look at college applications and they say, "I'm not sure I can afford college.

And so the conversation today is really about saying to you, "Yes, you can. Yes, you can go on to college. Yes, you can afford college. And we are here to help you."

Now I want to also encourage you not to be discouraged by obstacles that may get in your way outside of school. And I want to share with you my own personal experience around that.

As was mentioned, I grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up in New York City. I went to New York City public schools. When I was in fourth grade, when I was eight years old, in October of my fourth grade year, my mom passed away. And then I lived with my father who was quite sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease. And so from one night to the next, I didn't know what home was going to be like. I didn't know what my father was going to be like.

I can recall one night when he woke me up at two in the morning and he said, "Time to go to school, time to go to school." And I said, "No, it's not, no, it's not. It's not time to go to school, Daddy." I remember holding on to the bannister in my house, pleading with him that it wasn't time to go to school. And I didn't know what was wrong with him. And my dad passed away when I was 12 when I was in 7th grade. And I moved around between family members and schools, but through all of that period what made the difference for me was New York City public schools and New York City public school teachers, who saved my life. (Applause.)

Those teachers could have looked at me and said, "Here's an African-American, Latino male student growing up in New York City, going to New York City public schools with a family in crisis, what chance does he have?" They could have written me off. But instead, they made school a place that was compelling, and interesting, and engaging, and exciting every day. And we did productions of Shakespeare in elementary school. We read The New York Times every day. I had great teachers who, when you finished a book, they were there with the next. When you finished a math problem, they were there with the next. We went to the museum and the ballet and they gave me a sense of possibility beyond Canarsie, Brooklyn, where I was going to elementary school.

Those teachers at PS 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High School on Coney Island, they saved my life. They are the reason I'm alive today. They are the reason I'm standing here today with all of you.

And I share that story not because I wanted to be remarkable but because I wanted to be "not remarkable." I believe we need to build a society where every child, every young person, no matter the obstacles they may face outside of school has the opportunity through education to pursue their dreams and to become their best selves.(Applause.)That's right.(Applause.)

And so this conversation today is about that, is about how we transcend whatever circumstances we may face. We overcome whatever obstacles we may face to pursue our dreams.

And I want to tell you that higher education can be the path to do that. We know that folks with a college degree earn more than $1 million more over the course of their lives as a result of that degree. It doesn't mean everybody will get a four-year degree. Some people will get a two-year degree, and some people will get postsecondary career training, and some people I see here are ROTC students who will go to the military – and that will be part of pursuing their education.

But the key in today's 21st century economy – to be able to compete, to be able to have a family-sustaining wage, to be able to look out for your family, to be able to participate in civic life, is post-secondary education. Today, postsecondary education isn't optional. It's essential. And so that's what this conversation is about.

And I want to tell you to start by thinking about where you might want to go, what you might want to pursue. What areas of study are of interest to you? And as you do that, there are some tools that you can take advantage of and I'm going to show them to you. We have something called the College Scorecard that we've created at the Department of Education because we want your decision about college not to be one that you make by default. "Well, I knew somebody who went there." "Well, I heard about it some time." "I saw a commercial on TV." "Their sports team is one I root for." We want you to make a decision about college based on what is best for you, which college has the program that matches your interests, your needs, and what you want to accomplish in your career.

We want you to choose a college that makes sense for you financially. We want you to understand the investment you are making when you choose a college. We want you to know that that college is going to provide the supports necessary to ensure that you don't just get to college, but through college to graduation.

The mission here isn't just for students to enroll in college in September after they graduate from high school. It's to see them walk across the stage. It's to see all of you walk across that stage with a quality degree that will allow you to be successful in the 21st century economy.

And so we want you to ask those questions as you think about the college that you choose. Is this a college that will let me earn what I want to earn? Is this a college that will let me earn enough to pay off whatever I might have to borrow?

And so we're going to look to the College Scorecard. In the College Scorecard, you can see what programs a school offers, what the cost is, what the graduation rate is, what the average earnings are for people who graduate from that school, and how well folks from that school are able to pay back any debt that they may have.

And so we're going to take a look at that. That's at collegescorecard.ed.gov and that's a resource, a tool just like all the folks in this room who are here to talk about colleges with you are a resource: your school counselor, a resource; your teachers, a resource. But you've got to be a discriminating customer. You've got to ask, "Well, what kind of campus is it? And where is it located? And what kind of supports are in place? What are the credit requirements in the area that I might want to major in?" You have to ask all of those questions as you think about which college to attend.

And when it comes to the financial aspects of applying to college, you've got to take seriously that you're the customer and that the financial commitments you make around college are life-long commitments, so you have to be careful about those decisions. And you have to think about how much of your college education will be paid for through grants. Grants are free money, essentially, that you can get from federal or state government or from your college or university or from a foundation that support students going on to higher education. But figuring out how much you're getting in grants that you will not have to pay back is critical.

And the FAFSA, which will be available now on October 1st, will help you do that. It will help you figure out whether will you be able to take advantage of the federal Pell Grant program, for example.

Because of President Obama's leadership, Pell Grants have a value a thousand dollars more than when the President began. That's over $5,800 per year toward your higher education that you can get from the federal government as a grant if you quality for Pell Grants. It's important to figure out if you qualify. It's important to figure out if you can qualify for work study. Will you be able to have a job, maybe on campus, maybe in a public service activity in the community, maybe in an area that will prepare you for your career? Work-study dollars can help to make college affordable.

It's important to figure out if you're eligible for federal student loans and what those student loans will look like and the flexible interest rates and payment rates that are available through the federal Student Loan Program.

And it's important to figure out if there are other resources that you can tap into from the school district, from the university, from foundations. How else can you put together the resources that you need to pursue your higher education? The FAFSA is the starting point for that, and it becomes available on October 1st. That's important. It's available so early this year, for the first time, because we moved it up from January to October. The President asked us to do that to make it easier for families and students to understand their financial aid options, but also we've made it possible for folks to use their prior year tax return to complete the FAFSA. So you will be able to use the tax return that's already been submitted for your parent or parents and that will allow you to complete the form much more quickly. You'll actually be able to download the information from your tax return right into the FAFSA. It used to take an hour or more for the average person to complete the FAFSA. We've got it down to 20 minutes. Right?

And that's important. That's right. (Applause.)

And Tennessee has committed as a state to making sure, as you heard about here in Memphis, that students complete the FAFSA so they know what their options are.

Now as you complete your college application and your FAFSA, one of the things you want to think about is: "What's the real cost of a college for me?" I was at a high school in Washington, D.C., a few months back when students were looking at something called the Pell Abacus. It's a tool that uses information from the Scorecard to help students figure out what schools will actually cost once you account for grants and other financial aid.

And I was sitting with a student who discovered, while using the Pell Abacus tool, that the school he thought was inaccessible, that was going to be unaffordable, actually was less expensive than the school he thought he had to go to for financial reasons. The only reason he knew that is because he took advantage of that tool and took advantage of the information about his options.

And so today, we're going to share that College Scorecard with you. We're going to take questions about the college application and admissions processes, but I want you to know that the President and First Lady, one of their top priorities from the moment they came to the White House was trying to expand access to higher education. It is an area of focus for the First Lady through the Reach Higher Initiative. And she's committed time every week that they have been in the White House to talking with young people about the power of pursuing postsecondary education.

So I want you to have confidence in what you can achieve. Know that the President and First Lady are behind you. I know that the Memphis Public Schools are behind you. I know that the community leaders here in Memphis and Shelby County are behind you. And we're proud of you and we support you and we want to see you reach your dreams.

So now I want to ask Kevin, who is here with us, a student, to come up and help us take a look at the College Scorecard. (Applause.) Thank you.