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Obama Can Do More About College Costs

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(Special to The Root) — President Barack Obama was exactly right in his State of the Union speech to mention the need for college graduates as part of his prescription for more American jobs. While there are more job seekers than jobs in our struggling economy, many employers are hiring but are having a hard time finding the college graduates they need to fill today's high-technology — and high-paying — jobs.

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The trouble is, he didn't give the need for college graduates much more than a mention. "Most young people," he said, "will need some higher education." Most young people? Some higher education?  

He acknowledged that "skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education or saddle them with unsustainable debt." But he proposed no new aid, just conditioning federal aid to colleges on their affordability and introducing a college scorecard to help parents and students get value for their education dollars.

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In fact, his treatment of the need for more college graduates was, if anything, less specific and less ambitious than in his first address to Congress four years ago. "We will provide," he pledged then, "the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Four years later, as President Obama starts his second term as president, the country needs not just a mention of the need for more college graduates but also a comprehensive strategy for producing those college graduates — the kind of strategy that the administration has designed and executed for the education that comes before college. And that strategy has to start with making college affordable for low-income African Americans and other students of color.

Right now, college financial aid is in crisis, for students at large and for African Americans in particular. Increasing college-tuition costs and the decreasing value of federal student-aid grants has pushed national student debt over $1 trillion — higher than all credit card debt put together. A study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that only 37 percent of student-loan borrowers are able to repay their loans without delinquency or delay.

Black students are hit disproportionately hard. More than a quarter of black college graduates are carrying more than $30,000 of college debt, while only 16 percent of their white counterparts are so burdened. Thirty-six percent of white students graduate with no debt at all; only 19 percent — about half as many — of black graduates are so fortunate (pdf).

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It's a matter of justice and a matter of economics. It's not right that more than 50 years after a string of court decisions overturned legal barriers to African Americans attending college, financial barriers to African-American attendance and graduation are increasing.

It doesn't make economic sense, either. The U.S. economy needs college-educated teachers, scientists and engineers to stay competitive in the global economy. And in a country whose population and workforce will be majority minority by midcentury, that college-educated workforce will depend heavily on college graduates of color.

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It's not that the administration has done nothing to help low-income Americans pay for college. It has supported increasing Pell Grants, the largest federal source of student aid. But it has not even proposed increasing Pell Grants enough to maintain their former purchasing power, now at an all-time low. And it dealt away summer school Pell Grants in a 2011 budget deal with Congress.

Similarly, the administration deserves credit for instituting direct student loans, thereby cutting out unnecessary fees paid to commercial banks for risk-free federally guaranteed student loans. But it changed without notice the eligibility criteria for another federal loan program, Parent PLUS Loans, excluding millions of low-income parents with good repayment records.

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Most important, as that catalog of programs — some working at cross-purposes with others — suggests, the administration has not put together a coherent, comprehensive financial-aid policy calculated to achieve the goal President Obama enunciated in his address to Congress four years ago: increasing the number of Americans graduating from college and reclaim by 2020 — now just seven years away — world leadership in the percentage of citizens with college degrees.

The Obama administration has demonstrated, through its innovative and effective strategy to help reform K-12 education, that it knows how to use its leverage (the federal government bears 10 percent of the cost of K-12 education) to start the country on the path to better education. It needs to bring to bear that experience and its even greater financial-aid leverage (the federal government supplies 71 percent of all college financial aid) in developing a strategy to help the students whom the country needs pay for the college education that the country needs them to have.

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Michael Lomax is president and CEO of United Negro College Fund. He is a contributing editor for The Root.

If you have any questions about the college experience, whether you are a student or a parent, please send them to Dr. Lomax at therootstaff@theroot.com.

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The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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