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Secretary of Education pushes for more higher education funds

By Michael Sugerman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 9, 2014

In his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama told the nation that education reform would be critical to achieving economic stability. Following the release of Obama’s 2015 fiscal year budget proposal Tuesday, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, hammered the point home.

The education portion of the president’s proposed budget allots $69 billion in discretionary funding to the Department of Education, marking a 2-percent increase from the 2014 budget. Three fourths of this appropriation would go toward financial aid for college students, special education and high-poverty schools, according to the Department of Education website.

The remaining funds would be invested in the expansion of high quality preschooling, the establishment of a new college ranking system and an effort to increase college affordability.

In a conference call with members of the media, Duncan explained that all of these concepts are ultimately linked.

“By investing in high quality early childhood education, we are able to close achievement gaps, provide life transforming opportunities for children and strengthen and build a thriving middle class,” he said.

Closing the achievement gap, he said, could ultimately improve students’ ability to get into college. However, college attendance is also contingent on its price tag, an issue that the proposal also seeks to address.

The education budget as outlined would expand the government’s Pay as You Earn program, capping student loan repayment plans at 10 percent of discretionary income to “keep your monthly student loan payments affordable,” and to keep college students from deepening their debts, according to the PAYE website.

The bill would also make the American Opportunity Tax Credit — which provides up to $2,500 in refundable tax credits for tuition — permanent. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) cosponsored the legislation behind the AOTC, which is currently set to expire in December 2017.

In the last year, affordability has been a hot topic at the University, present in both administrative and student affairs.

In a speech to the Lansing Regional Chamber Economic Club on Feb. 13, University President Mary Sue Coleman said higher education is central to state development. She praised Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2015 budget proposal, which would increase public higher education appropriations by 6.1 percent at a time when states, on average, are spending 28 percent less on college students than they did in 2008.

“We have a chance here in Michigan to recapture national leadership with the growth of our public universities,” Coleman said. “I firmly believe that states that do not invest in higher education will not win the 21st century, and I want desperately for Michigan to win.”

In a January question-and-answer with the Daily, University President-elect Mark Schlissel said affordability would be a top priority of his from the beginning of his tenure.

Diversity has also played a large role in the conversation about access to higher education. In the last few months, the Black Student Union has gained national media coverage for bringing attention to the lack of diversity at the University by calling for increased minority enrollment — an increase of Black students to 10 percent — and more on-site recruiting in underserved communities, among other demands.

This issue is one that the Department of Education is also trying to combat. Duncan explained that minority graduation and college attendance rates have been on the rise in recent years, but added that the proposed budget could further bolster these trends.

“We’ve seen some very significant improvement over the last couple of years,” Duncan said. “Graduation rates are at an all-time high, largely driven by increases in Black (and) Latino graduation rates. More students not just waiting, but going on to college. But we know we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. We’re not where we need to be.”

Duncan said closing the achievement gap will directly contribute to increased college readiness in underserved and low-income communities, a goal reflected by Obama’s proposed “Race to the Top” initiative. The initiative would invest $300 million to target and fix communities saddled with educational inequity.

The program would allow the government to give grants to underprivileged schools to invest in stronger teachers, technology, expanded learning time and more access to “rigorous coursework,” according to an Education Department press release.

The goal is to bolster career readiness and post-secondary education readiness, which Duncan said is as important as improving college affordability.

Duncan added that increasing college readiness is one step toward a greater goal: reclaiming the top spot in college completion internationally. He said this achievement would be “essential for our nation’s economic prosperity,” an argument that would contribute to the budget proposal’s four pillars of addressing affordability.

These include increasing the federal government’s investment in the First in the World fund, which supports institutional policies to decrease the cost of higher education, to $100 million; increasing the maximum size of federal Pell Grants, which the government gives to more than 9 million low-income college undergraduates each year to help pay tuition; allotting funds to establish a new college ratings system; and investing $75 million in a new “competitive grant initiative that would give minority-serving institutions financial support.

Kelly Cunningham, University director of public affairs, said these initiatives are promising with regard to the University’s goals for the future.

“We are reviewing the budget proposal details now, but we do note an increase in the Pell Grant amount, which could be helpful for our students,” she wrote in a statement. “We’ll continue to evaluate the budget and work together with our colleagues in Washington as the budget season progresses.”

In a press release, the Association of American Universities — of which the University is a member — wrote that the government’s proposed budget amendments would bolster access to higher education, but have left research funding by the wayside.

“The President’s FY15 budget does disappointingly little to close the nation’s innovation deficit,” the AAU statement read. “When it comes to research, its modest spending increases in a few key research agencies are not sufficient to put this nation on an investment path that can ensure we remain the world’s innovation leader.”