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U.S. Ed Department Symposium Sheds Light on New Obama College Plan

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As higher education leaders seek to size up the Obama administration’s proposal to tie some federal aid to the ability of states, colleges and universities to keep down tuition, a U.S. Department of Education-led symposium on Monday sought to explore ways to scale up practices that have been shown to increase completion.


“I can’t overstate how important it is that, even in these really tough economic times, and budgets getting hit at every level, that we find ways to help young people, particularly disadvantaged folks, not only to go to college but graduate,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said to dozens of attendees in an auditorium at the U.S. Education Department as the department hosted “Evidence — Action — Innovation College Completion Symposium.”


“We have not been doing enough to incentivize completion, and we’re trying to change that now,” Duncan said of the Obama administration’s new proposal to create a $1 billion “Race to the Top: College Affordability and Completion.”


“It’s a significant carrot to help folks scale up what’s working,” Duncan said.


While details of the proposal are still forthcoming, the administration has said the federal money would be awarded to states that implement reforms that would “reduce costs for students and promote success in our higher education system at public colleges.”


The funds would be awarded to states similar to how funds were awarded to states that successfully competed for grants from the department’s Race to the Top to initiate innovative K-12 reforms.


In addition to hosting the college completion symposium on Monday, the Education Department also published in the Federal Register a “Request for Information” that asks institutions of higher education, nonprofits, states, researchers and others to provide the department with “promising and practical strategies, practices, programs, and activities that have improved rates of postsecondary success, transfer and graduation.”


The information—due no later than April 20—will be posted online in the department’s efforts to identify successful approaches toward college completion as the administration presses forward with its proposed Race to the Top fund for higher education.


Several attendees at Monday’s symposium on completion expressed interest in the Obama administration’s proposal to create a Race to the Top for higher education, but wanted to learn more about it before they expressed opposition or support.


Dr. Charlie Nelms, Chancellor at North Carolina Central University and a presenter at the symposium, cautioned that “context is everything” when it comes to college costs.


“The thing we must avoid is a one-size-fits-all to cost cutting,” Nelms told Diverse during a short break at the symposium.


“Some of us are already among the most affordable institutions in America,” Nelms said of the college he leads in North Carolina, where, according to an online schedule, tuition for 12 credits, room and board and other fees is $7,900 per semester.


Of the Obama administration’s proposal to tie some federal aid to the ability to keep down tuition, Nelms offered other thoughts on approaches that should be avoided.


“Don’t punish us for trying to fulfill our mission of providing access and success,” Nelms said. “In other words, don’t say, ‘Here’s what we expect you to do, but, by the way, you don’t have the resources to do it.’” The comment was directed at declining state resources—a key driver of tuition increases.


While the Obama administration has focused on what is essentially a numerical goal—namely, restoring the United States to being the top nation in the world in the proportion of citizens who have college degrees—Nelms pointed toward the need to make sure that the degrees being granted actually represent something of value in the labor market.


“I don’t want people to have access to a low-quality experience,” Nelms said. “We need high-quality educational experiences for our students, so when they graduate, they leave with a credential with value in the marketplace.


“It’s not just low cost. We need affordable cost to a high-quality college experience.”


Nelms expressed concern over being able to provide such an experience. “Unless we have a base of funding from the state and federal government, institutions like mine won’t even be able to offer classes that (students) need to progress to a degree in a reasonable time frame,” Nelms said.


Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a D.C.-based organization that works to improve completion rates, said the affordability issue that President Obama raised last week in his State of the Union address and again in a speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is “a significant issue whose time is overdue.”


“It’s a tough climate, politically, but I’m really glad the president raised the issue and is pressing the agenda,” Jones said during a break at the symposium. “It may not turn out that it’s actually these proposals (that get adopted), but I hope it will be successful in moderating tuition increases.”


Asked if he supported the Obama administration’s proposed Race to the Top fund for higher education, Jones said that the approach proved “worthwhile in K-12” and that it’s “something to consider” for higher education.

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