Opportunity Across America: Expanding College Access, Affordability, and Completion

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Good morning. I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk with you all. Thank you, President Alexander, and thank you to all of the LSU leadership and students and faculty for this opportunity to join you today. I also had the opportunity to spend time in Baton Rouge this morning visiting teachers who are affected by the flooding, and I was reminded in that conversation of the incredible resilience and fortitude of the State of Louisiana. The state has taken on many challenges in recent years, not least of which have been natural disasters, and I am inspired by teachers who, despite losing their own homes, despite the challenges they are facing in their lives, are focused on their students, their students' families, and how to lift up their students and their communities.

Also, I have to acknowledge the challenges that the community has experienced around issues of police and community relationships, and the loss of life that we've seen, the loss of life of Alton Sterling and of the police officers who were killed in the horrible ambush. We have a lot of work to do as a country to bind up our wounds and challenges, and Louisiana is leading the way in that. I appreciate all of the people of Louisiana, and that region in particular, for that.

I want to situate our conversation today focused on college access, affordability, and completion. I want to situate our conversation in 2009, when the President first came into office. When the President came into office, he made, from the outset, increasing the share of Americans with a postsecondary degree or credential a top priority. If you recall, back in 2009, our economy was foundering. Unemployment was soaring. The bottom had fallen out of the stock market, and millions of people were losing their homes.

Right away, the President got to work with Congress on emergency measures to help the nation recover, but he also understood that a big factor in the long-term strength of our economy, the long-term strength of our democracy, would be helping more Americans to get a quality postsecondary education. After all, a college education, the President understood, means higher lifetime earnings, lower jobless rates, a competitive edge in the global marketplace, and even better long-term health.

A college education helps us fulfill the promise of the founders: that America stands for equality of opportunity for all. And that is why I am happy on this last day of the bus tour to highlight progress all across the country and to spend time here at LSU, where you are creating a culture of access and success for all students, including those facing the highest hurdles.

President Alexander was talking about this as I came in. Last year, you posted your highest-ever spring and fall six-year graduation rates. This year, you have been heralded for increasing enrollment and graduation rates for African-American students and narrowing completion gaps between African-American students and their white peers. This is, therefore, a fitting place to celebrate the progress that we've made as a country over the last seven-and-a-half years to increase access, affordability, and completion. It is also a fitting place to assess the work that we have left to do and to recognize some of the programs and practices that are making a difference.

But let me start with the story of a young man from Brooklyn, a young man from a multiracial, bicultural, and bilingual family who suffered tragedy at an early age. At age 8, he lost his mother. At age 12, he lost his father after a long and difficult illness that made home a scary and unpredictable place. We've all heard versions of wrenching stories about young people who are not able to be the kid they ought to be able to be because of the challenges they faced in life outside of school. Often, these are young people who are from lower-income families, young people of color.

But this young man that I am describing had great public school teachers. They took him and his classmates seriously, expected a lot from them, and provided the support necessary for them to succeed. But as a teenager, despite that great support from teachers, the young man was angry about the experiences he had had as a kid and still working through that emotional impact of losing both of his parents.

He had a chance to go to a prestigious boarding school and got kicked out, kicked out of high school, and his future looked grim. But then teachers again intervened to save that young man's life by giving him a second chance, by looking beyond the mistakes he had made to the potential that he had and investing in him. That young man went on to Harvard, he graduated in three years, and got a law degree at Yale and a doctorate at Columbia, and that young man was me.

But I don't want this to be a story that is remarkable. I want this to be a story that reflects who we are as a country and what we can offer to every child. I am standing here today, I am alive today because New York City public school teachers saved my life. They could have looked at me as an African American/Latino male student growing up in a family in crisis in a New York City public school and written me off, but they didn't. They invested in me. They gave me hope and a sense of possibility and a well-rounded, quality education, and that is why I am standing here today.

And so that is really in many ways what this conversation today is about. Students who have overcome challenging circumstances, students like me who could have been written off, can and do thrive in college. They simply need the same supports that generations of affluent parents have been able to offer to their kids and that all parents wish they could provide for all their children.

Fortunately, many of the supports that helped me and that helped me to succeed in college are supports that we now have an evidence base to support, that we know make a difference for young people. I have seen it also in my career as a teacher and principal working with low-income students, students of color, often first-generation students. I have seen these very resources that made the difference for me make a difference for them. I was fortunate to have champions. All of our students need champions, educators and mentors who will care about them, invest in them, and ensure they have access to opportunity.

All of our young people need role models, people they can look up to, people whose example they can follow. I was fortunate to have, after I got kicked out of high school, an uncle who took me in who was a Tuskegee airman. He had a career in the Air Force, and for the first time in my life, I had dinner at the same time every night, I had structure and support, and he challenged me, challenged me to take responsibility for my life.

He said to me, you know, I can't change the things that happened to you as a kid. You can't change the things that happened to you as a kid. But now the question is what kind of man do you want to be? And that made all the difference for me.

It also made a difference to interact with an African-American male student who was at Harvard who came to my high school and talked about his experience and gave me the sense that that dream was possible for me. Also, the benefit of exposure: all of our students need to be exposed to broad possibilities. It was teachers at P.S. 276 in Canarsie, Brooklyn who exposed me to a world beyond Canarsie. They took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the ballet and had us read the New York Times every day. It gave me a sense that there was this whole world of opportunity beyond the limits of what I could see as a kid. All our students need that.

I also had the opportunity to stand up, to spend a weekend at Harvard as a newly admitted student for students of color, and that was a powerful experience to hear from the institution that the institution was invested in my success, the institution was invested in a meaningful commitment to diversity. That kind of exposure was critical to my decision to go there.

Now, once I enrolled, there were again critical resources, critical for my success, which we must replicate for all students. I was fortunate to have strong academic preparation, fortunate that I had taken Advanced Placement courses and had the opportunity to develop the reading skills, writing skills, and problem-solving skills that are essential to college success. And we know that too many of our students today and too many of our schools don't have those very opportunities.

We know that African-American and Latino students are disproportionately likely to attend schools that not only don't offer Advanced Placement courses, they don't even offer chemistry, physics, or Algebra II, so we need to make sure, if we want our students to be successful, we've got to make sure that our K-12 system is providing them with the foundational academic skills that they need.

I was also fortunate to have a set of social adaptability skills, socioemotional skills, that helped me. I have been on my own basically since I was 8, been doing my own laundry since I was 8, but too many of our students are arriving on campus not having had the preparation to navigate the challenges of being independent and making daily decisions on their own. We've got to make sure that we instill in our students the socioemotional skills they need for success. We've got to make sure that they have support when they get to campus so that they can navigate the challenges of their new experiences.

I was fortunate I chose a school that was the right fit for me, that was a city school where I felt comfortable. I can recall doing college visits and going to places that didn't feel quite like home, but when I got to Boston and got on the T, which reminded me of the New York subway, and people were bumping into me and almost knocking me over, I thought yes, this is where I belong.


tI was also fortunate to get engaged right away in meaningful activities on campus that allowed me to develop relationships with mentors in the faculty, administration, and with peers. I got involved in a public service organization, the Phillips Brooks House at Harvard, that has had, for generations, student-run community service organizations. I began volunteering for a civics teacher in Boston public schools and running an after-school program and summer camp in a public housing development, and those experiences helped me feel connected to school and to the community and were a huge factor in my decision ultimately to become a teacher and a principal.

All campuses need to create those opportunities for students to get engaged with the community, to feel a part of the school community. So our challenge, collectively, is how to ensure these kinds of resources, supports, and experiences — the ones that made such a huge difference for me and so many of us in this room — how do we make sure that those are available to all students at all of our higher education institutions? And that has been, from the start of the administration, a priority for the President. Are we focused on ensuring that our students in K-12 are prepared for college and career success? Are we trying to support states and districts, including Louisiana, in their work to ensure that students are getting the kinds of writing skills, research skills, and ability to collaborate on projects with peers that are essential for long-term success?

As a principal, those were the things that I was laser-focused on because I knew that it would make such a difference for my students. We have been focused on supporting states and districts as they help students get a well-rounded education, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act gives us new tools to support that. We know that English and math are essential. There is no question that reading, writing, and math skills are foundational. But they are necessary, not sufficient, for long-term success. We've got to make sure that our students in K-12 have access to the arts, have access to science, and social studies, and socioemotional learning. We've got to make sure, increasingly in our technology-focused world, that students have access to opportunities in computer science and coding.

We've got to make sure that our students are exposed to the breadth of careers that are available to them and to quality career and technical education. And we are seeing progress on these fronts because of investments the administration has made. We have the highest graduation rate from high school that we have ever had as a country, and Louisiana has been very much a part of those gains. We're seeing the lowest dropout rates that we've had for African-American and Latino students. That success is because of the work of educators, students, and families to strengthen K-12 education over the last seven-and-a-half years.

As we think about students who are hopefully well-prepared as they come to high school graduation, we've tried to help make sure that they have support to make good decisions, and we've tried to help students choose colleges wisely, and address rising college costs and student loan debt. We at the Department have tried to create, together with leaders like President Alexander, new consumer tools to empower students and families — tools like the College Scorecard and the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet that make college cost and quality more transparent and help applicants find the schools that will offer them the best value. In fact, we just updated the College Scorecard data earlier this week.

We have made access to financial aid simpler and faster. We have doubled investments in Pell Grants and tax credits, increased Pell Grants by more than $1,000, and created a tax credit that can be worth up to $10,000 to support four years of college. Here in Louisiana, the State Board of Education is an important partner in the work to make college more accessible. Their recent decision to require students, as part of high school graduation, to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA, is, I think, an important step for which they deserve tremendous credit.

The administration has also ended student loan subsidies for private financial institutions and banks and shifted more than $60 billion to students and taxpayers rather than to banks. We have kept interest rates low on student loans. We have expanded income-based repayment to help borrowers manage their college debt, actually allowing borrowers to cap their payments at 10 percent of their income, and we have invested more than $2 billion in our community college system to expand education and career training.

We have taken unprecedented steps to protect students and safeguard taxpayer dollars, ensuring students get an education that leads to a meaningful degree or credential and good job prospects, and we have allowed students to discharge loans when they have been defrauded by institutions that are breaking the law.

Our administration has worked to improve oversight and to hold risky institutions accountable and to advance better accreditation practices that are transparent, rigorous, and focused on student outcomes. We have also called on states, many of which have severely cut budgets for public higher education, to rethink their priorities. We issued a report earlier this year on spending on prisons versus spending on education, and what it showed in state after state is that the investments in public higher education have been flat or going down even as states' investment in prisons have skyrocketed. Those priorities are exactly backward.

We're fortunate that there are states that are leading the way in a positive direction, states like Wyoming, New York, New Mexico, North Dakota, Alaska, and Nebraska, who are beginning to reinvest in public higher education, but all states need to show this kind of leadership, and President Alexander has been a national leader on these issues, a national voice for investment in public higher education. And I am encouraged that Governor Edwards is planning to take up this important issue and planning to rethink how the State of Louisiana approaches investment in higher education.

We also need institutions to do better. We have just recently found that, even among colleges and universities with very large endowments, of over $500 million, almost half of them ranked in the bottom 5 percent nationally for enrolling low-income students. Those institutions have a moral obligation to do a better job to recruit students who are Pell-eligible and to invest in those students' success and support. Our higher education system can't be deemed successful until all students are successful, regardless of background or circumstance. That must be our collective goal.

Already we have seen remarkable work by people in this room and leaders across the country, who are creating conditions for success. Our First in the World grant program has been focused on accelerating and investing in efforts to improve college access, affordability, and particularly, completion.

One example, where I visited not long ago with Under Secretary Ted Mitchell, is Georgia State. We saw the way that Georgia State has increased their graduation rate by 13 points over the last few years by investing in what I called intrusive counseling — they call it a proactive counseling — but counseling where, when a student signs up for the wrong classes, classes that won't help them get their major on time, those students get a call from their counselor right at the beginning of the semester. When students do poorly on a midterm exam, a counselor calls them and reaches out to them, and the school offers just-in-time loans for students — microloans for students who are struggling with financial challenges.

Georgia State has joined something called the University Innovation Alliance, a partnership designed to leverage best practices around improving completion rates. We also know that we need to support students' socioemotional needs. We have a long track record at the Department in helping first-generation students navigate the college experience through the Federal TRIO Programs. Those Federal TRIO Programs have accounted for hundreds of thousands of first-generation students who have been able to succeed in college and succeed in the community and graduate. And we are working to strengthen the TRIO Programs to make them more evidence-based to build on best practices and research to make sure that we're providing the best possible supports to our students: the best coaching, the best mentoring, rethinking developmental education, and using things like co-requisite classes to make sure that students are able to stay on track to graduation.

We also are supporting, through First in the World, efforts to strengthen college experiences for students so that they can see the connection between what they are learning in college and what they might do afterward. Through our First in the World grant, a consortium of colleges led by Farmingdale State College and SUNY College of Old Westbury are engaging students in project-based and experiential learning, helping connect them with internships, and using the research of Uri Treisman to try to make sure that students are working with peer teams to improve their skills.

Too often, students who are struggling work in isolation, and through Treisman's research informing the work of this consortium, they are thinking about how to create peer cohorts that support each other academically and socially. We also are partnering with institutions to think about how we can better use Pell dollars to help students succeed.

We're also engaged in two important experiments, pilot initiatives, one of which is focused on dual enrollment, helping high school students to take college classes. We know that students who are engaged in dual enrollment programs are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to go on to college, more likely to persist in college, and more likely to graduate from college. And so, through our Pell experimental authority, we have a large-scale dual enrollment pilot.

We also have a pilot project focused on folks who are incarcerated. And as part of this bus tour, I spent time at the Limestone Correctional Facility, which has a partnership with Calhoun Community College, where the folks who are incarcerated are able to get an education. They are pursuing studies in horticulture and drafting and welding and HVAC, and when they leave prison, they will be significantly less likely to return.

The evidence on that is overwhelming. The country made a mistake in the mid-90s to take Pell access away from folks who are incarcerated. Through this experimental authority, 69 universities will serve about 12,000 students across more than 100 correctional facilities. And we are confident this pilot will demonstrate the wisdom of investing in helping folks who are incarcerated to get an education while there. It is better for them, better for their families, and better for the long-term safety of our communities.

We're also seeing institutions lead the way on evidence-based practice, particularly focused on the students who are required to participate in remedial courses, or developmental education. In too many places, remediation is a path to exit, and, as the President said, to no degree. But institutions are changing that, such as the City University of New York and their ASAP program, which is focused on students who are in developmental education. That Accelerated Study in Associate Programs is providing intensive counseling and support for students, creating cohort environments for students to move through their associate's degree experience, helping with transportation, subsidies, and just-in-time microloans, the kinds of things we know work for helping students get to graduation. MDRC did a study of the ASAP program and showed it had nearly doubled graduation rates for students in developmental education through the supports that it is providing.

We also see communities embracing this access, affordability, completion agenda — places like Oakland, which has adopted a Promise strategy. Oakland has committed that all young people in Oakland will have access to college for free. The folks there are working to ensure that students can take advantage of community college for the first couple of years. They have mobilized the business community and the philanthropic community around that commitment, and they are also investing in early supports in the K-12 system to make sure students are on the path to college success.

There is a lot of progress to celebrate across the country. More students than ever before are graduating from high school. More students than ever before are going on to college. We have a million more African-American and Latino students in college today than when the President began. We are seeing improvements in college completion rates for our Latino students, in particular.

But the question now is: how do we sustain and build on that progress? And I want to close by talking about a few of the proposals the President has made that we think will accelerate the progress that our nation has seen.

One is America's College Promise, the idea that we should make two years of community college as universal as access to K-12 education. America's College Promise would guarantee hardworking students two years of community college or the first two years at a historically black college or university or another minority-serving institution. And this would be a partnership. America's College Promise would require states to invest in their public higher education systems. It would require community colleges to rethink their programs and ensure that they are helping students get to graduation with the right supports, and it would require students to take responsibility for getting good grades and for staying on time to graduation.

And we are continuing to advocate for America's College Promise. There are some folks who say Congress is done with their work for this year. We don't believe that to be the case. We expect them to do their work through the rest of the year, and we think part of that work should be passing the President's America's College Promise proposal.

I know it is probably a shock to know that Congress doesn't always do what the President asks, but we're working to change that. The President has also proposed restoring year-round access to Pell Grants. We know that having access to Pell in the summer can be the difference for students actually reaching graduation. We see momentum in the Senate around that, less so in the House, but again, we want to continue to work with Congress to make sure that is a part of the budget agreement later this year.

The President has also proposed indexing Pell dollars to inflation so that we can make sure that the goal of Pell stays strong and that the value of Pell does not diminish over time. The President has also proposed restoring funding for First in the World, which was missing from last year's budget, and a new initiative called the HBCU and MSI Innovation for Completion Fund that would be similar to the First in the World initiative, but focused on our HBCUs and MSIs.

The President has proposed an on-track Pell bonus, a $300 incentive for students who take 15 or more credits each semester. We see examples around the country, places like the University of Hawaii, that are demonstrating the value of focusing on students taking 15 or more credits so that they stay on track to graduate. It is not possible for every student. It would not be mandatory. But it would be an incentive for students to take 15 or more credits.

The President has also proposed something called the College Opportunity and Graduation Bonus, a bonus for institutions that are committed to enrolling Pell-eligible students and supporting them through to completion.

But ultimately, the federal government cannot do this work on its own. As President Alexander often talks about, this is also about states taking responsibility for investing in their public higher education systems, and it is about institutions taking responsibility to support all of their students through to graduation.

It is not simply enough to make a good education available. We have to do whatever it takes to ensure that all of our students, today's diverse learners, and increasingly so, actually benefit from that education and have the opportunity to achieve in full measure. It's not enough for students to start college, but they have to finish with a quality degree.

This is especially true for students who have to take out loans to pay for college. If they don't complete a degree, they actually end up worse off than had they never gone to college in the first place because they wind up saddled with debt that they cannot pay.

When we reach our goal, with millions more college graduates of every race, income, and background, we will have demonstrated once again the promise of the American Dream — that regardless of where you begin, you can go as far as your hard work and talents will carry you in a country where we invest in the potential and promise of every individual.

A couple months ago, I saw a press conference here in Baton Rouge for the young man from the city who in some ways reminded me of myself as a young person, his early life marred by tragedy. His name is Cameron Sterling. I watched this teen who had just lost his father to sudden shattering violence call on Americans of every race and background to come together as one united family. To see such grace and to hear such wise, sober words is to glimpse the vast potential of every young person on every street and in every neighborhood, not just in Baton Rouge, but across the country.

With the right support, an excellent education, and a college degree, maybe right here at LSU, what can't a young man like Cameron Sterling achieve? We can give all our students the tools to write a hopeful ending to their stories, just as my New York City public school teachers did for me. We can give them the opportunity to aspire to and complete college, to go on to share their gifts as parents and professionals, as citizens and as neighbors.

As we fulfill the promise of higher education for all students, we help students fulfill their destiny, and we help our nation become a more perfect union. Thank you all for being here, and thank you for the opportunity to talk with you today.