In her rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama explained the reasons that the American people should re-elect her husband to office. She made references to his concern for average Americans, his appreciation for hard work and the struggles they faced repaying student loans early in their marriage. In a passionate delivery, the First Lady explained that, back in the early days of their marriage, she and the President were “so in love and so in debt.”
As a result, the President has resolved to remove much of the unnecessary redtape of college attendance and make the process more affordable for everyone—especially minority groups. He began this quest in his first term, and now, with re-election, President Obama has made strides toward expanding the programs already in place and enacting new ones. Here is a look at the higher education plans of the Obama administration and what they mean for underserved students.
Expansion of Community Colleges
In July 2012, President Obama proposed the American Graduation Initiative, which is intended to put more money and planning toward community colleges in order to provide more affordable options and high levels of training for all prospective college students. As part of this initiative, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act will pour $2 billion over the course of four years into an expansion of career training at community colleges with a focus on the high-demand health care field. The Department of Labor is overseeing this initiative in conjunction with the Department of Education. According to the White House website, the goals of the Obama community college program include:
- Teaching basic skills through remedial and adult education.
- Further developing online courses for more student flexibility and accelerated programs.
- Creating educational partnerships to give students more course options.
- Building partnerships with businesses that would allow worksite education that has current labor market emphasis.
By making use of the resources within each community to give students a strong education that is flexible and affordable, this Obama initiative will result in higher numbers of underrepresented college groups obtaining secondary education and entering the workforce.
Enforcement of the DREAM Act
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act will provide an estimated 2.1 million young people in the U.S. the opportunity to gain an education and amnesty from deportation. While the ethical points of this act have been stressed, and rightfully so, there are also economic benefits for all Americans. The Center for American Progress estimates that the DREAM Act will create 1.4 million new jobs by the year 2030 and mean an infusion of $329 billion into the U.S. economy. By having extra encouragement to obtain an education in a documented workforce, children brought to the country illegally can make good on the past and contribute to the economy of the only home country they have ever known.
Pell Grant Increases
The President has pledged to double the amount of funding available in the form of Pell Grants over the next three years. Unlike student loans, Pell Grants do not ever need to be repaid. For the 2011–12 school year, the maximum award amount was $5,550. While a Pell Grant cannot cover all of the college costs, it goes a long way toward in-state tuition or community college courses. All students can apply for the program, and the awards are handed out based on the financial need of the student in relationship to the cost of attendance. By 2017, the maximum amount awarded to students is expected to rise to $5,975. By 2021, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 820,000 more Pell Grant awards will be available. The money will come, in part, from restructuring the way federal student loans are distributed. By implementing a direct student loan program, instead of a bank-subsidized one, $68 billion will be saved by the year 2020.
Higher College Tax Credits
The Obama-Biden administration plans to triple the current tax credits available to students or the parents of students paying college expenses. The American Opportunity Tax Credit gives a $2,500 tax credit maximum per student and is allowed to be claimed for four years, not the previous two afforded in the Hope Credit. Individuals with a gross adjusted income of $80,000 or less qualify, as well as married couples with $160,000 or less. According to the IRS, up to 40 percent of the credit is refundable, up to $1,000, to people that file even if no taxes are owed. In addition to courses and fees, the new tax credit includes costs such as books, supplies and required class materials.
Income-Based Loan Repayment
President Obama has often said that he believes that paying for college should not be overwhelming for graduates. He has pledged to expand income-based repayment options to keep the bills from college from becoming unmanageable. Around two-thirds of college students have debt of more than $23,000 upon graduation. This can be especially difficult for students that want to enter public service jobs or face unexpected financial hardships like unemployment or serious illness. Beginning in 2014, students can limit payments to 10 percent of income, which is a reduction from 15 percent in the previous law. In plain language, this means a reduction of $110 per month for unmarried borrowers that owe $20,000 and make $30,000 per year. An estimated 1 million borrowers will be positively impacted by this change in repayment options. In addition, borrowers that make monthly payments will be allowed debt forgiveness after 20 years. Public service workers like nurses, teachers and military employees will receive debt forgiveness after just 10 years.
The changes that President Obama hopes to make in higher education during his second term will benefit the people that need it most—middle to low-income students that want a strong career path that they can afford. Community college expansion, larger Pell Grant awards, income-based loan repayment and the many paths to success the DREAM act will afford will bring about a more diverse group of educated Americans. A wide variety of demographic groups will benefit from the reform, and the workforce in a decade and beyond will hopefully represent a wider cross section of the U.S populace.
Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Department Chair and an Associate Professor of Education at Langston University. He has focused on researching topics related to educational policy, school leadership and education reform, particularly in the urban learning environment. Please visit his website at www.drmattlynch.com.