In a conference call with college journalists yesterday, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan partnered with MTV’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Jason Rzepka, and President of the College Board, Gaston Caperton, in a discussion about the importance of college affordability in increasing graduation rates and improving the national economy.

Duncan said that while progress has been made during the Obama administration toward increasing student funding and simplifying the financial aid process, there is still much work to be done in order to fulfill Obama’s goal of being the leading country globally in college graduates.

“The President’s goal can only be attained if an unprecedented number of Americans enroll in and then complete college, and for millions of students, paying for college is the biggest barrier to completion,” Duncan said. “So one of our most important tasks is to make college more affordable.”

Obama increased Pell Grant funding by $40 billion when he signed the higher education bill last May. The increased funding allowed an additional 2.4 million students to receive the grant.

The administration also developed the Income-Based Repayment Plan, which allows students embarking on public service careers to delegate 15 percent of their incomes toward loan repayment, and have their debt forgiven after 10 years in the field. They have also simplified the “far too long, far too confusing” FAFSA form to make it “significantly shorter, simpler and more user friendly,” Duncan said.

“We eliminated that barrier and we think that will help millions of students go forward and explore their heart, pursue their passion and not be saddled in debt that prevents them from doing that,” Duncan said.

Duncan said reform and increased funding for higher education is crucial to yielding more college graduates and developing skills necessary to improve America’s economy.

“We fundamentally believe that education has to be the great equalizer in America,” Duncan said. “We have to educate our way to a better economy.”

Caperton — who, in addition to his role with the College Board, is also the former governor of West Virginia — echoed Duncan’s sentiments, saying that getting a college degree is crucial in securing a job and in helping to increase economic standards.

“A college degree today is more important than it’s ever been, particularly in this global society,” Caperton said.

According to Caperton, only 56 percent of students graduate from a four-year institution within six years and only 27 percent graduate from community colleges during the same time span.

“What we don’t want to see at all are people wasting their time in high school, coming to college and not completing their education,” Caperton said. “That’s really a double loss. Not only is it difficult to pay, but also not to get their reward of a college education.”

Caperton said student financial difficulties are the result of the larger challenges the country has faced in dealing with finances in recent years. Because of this, he said, America is going through a “readjustment period” and will take time to rebuild.

“The difficulty we have today in this country is we have lived way beyond our means,” Caperton said. “People have under-saved, we’ve over-spent, we’ve had more cars and bigger houses than we can often afford and the government has not balanced its budget but has spent more money than it has.”

Rzepka said that his main job is to “use MTV’s superpowers for good,” adding that he aims to do this through encouraging college graduation rates. In 2005, MTV, the Gates Foundation and Viacom created “Get Schooled,” a 5-year campaign that emphasizes completing high school and preparing students both academically and mentally for college completion.

“It’s no secret that young people today are facing significant educational barriers,” Rzepka said, “barriers that prevent them from getting an education, that prevent them for success in life, barriers that previous generations didn’t face. And at the same time, the future of our country and the United States’ standing in the world has never been more dependent on the job we do in educating young Americans.”

The group recently launched a contest called the “Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge” which calls for students to brainstorm how to create a simpler financial aid process.

According to Rzepka, there are 2 million college students each year who fail to apply for the close to 70 billion dollars-worth of funding provided through financial aid. He said he hopes this contest will make the funds more accessible.

“This competition calls on young people and college students nationwide to harness the power of technology and to re-imagine the financial aid process,” Rzepka said. “We’re calling on young people to use new, innovative digital tools that make it easier for college students to find money for school.”

The contest ends on Dec. 17, 2010 and the winning group will receive $10,000. In addition, MTV and the College Board will try to bring the winning idea to fruition.

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