Sharing Responsibility for College Affordability, Quality and Completion

One of the best parts of my job is the chance I get to meet outstanding academic and student leaders as I travel around the country.  For me, the best moments often come right before or after I deliver my formal remarks, when I get to visit with faculty, administrators and students at my speaking location one-on-one, find out who they are and learn about their challenges, hopes and dreams. These individual informal chats never last long enough for me, and they are the moments I remember most from each visit.

During my recent visit to Palm Beach State College, I had the opportunity to discuss the higher education proposals President Obama announced in his State of the Union address, with students, professors, policy makers, state and local officials, business and community leaders. I felt a great source of pride in describing what we’ve been able to accomplish in higher education over the past few years:

    • Reforming the student loan program,
    • Boosting the maximum Pell grant by more than $800 and dramatically expanding the number of Pell grant recipients from 6 million to more than 9 million students from our nation’s lowest income families,
    • Enabling Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to build capacity with the $2.55 billion 10-year fund for MSIs, and
    • Providing $2 billion dollars for next generation job-training at community colleges over the next few years, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor.

As you can see, the President’s education vision for 2020 and beyond inspires me every day to build on this substantial progress and to breakthrough the obstacles ahead to keep college affordable for the middle class, to provide students more opportunities through campus based aid and work study reforms, to enable postsecondary institutions to innovate and implement those high impact strategies that will help more students succeed, and to support states to increase their support for higher education – all for the purpose of increasing our nation’s college attainment goal.

The President has proposed a $1 billion Race to the Top for College Affordability and Completion to help states and a $55 million First in the World fund for institutions. Why? We need states and institutions as well as the federal government and students themselves to share responsibility to meet our vision to produce a far better educated citizenry than we’ve had in decades past. We need a more highly educated workforce, and we need leaders at all levels of government, business, labor and the non-profit sector to bring our nation to a level of excellence in our global society that sadly we do not enjoy today.

In all of this work, please know it’s the series of tiny “aha” moments that, when taken together, create the momentum that move us forward. After I left Palm Beach State, I received an email from Carlos Ramos, the university’s Associate Dean of Math, Engineering, and Science who wanted to learn about a new resource I mentioned, a set of free high quality STEM-related college level textbooks that Rice University’s Connexions project is rolling out in the next few months in association with a new organization called OpenStax College.

For me, Dean Ramos’s communication was more than a simple email.  It was a statement that my visit mattered — and that because of my visit, Dean Ramos will now be able to help more students in more ways.  And that is the way real change happens, one by one, on the ground, by meeting individual student needs, one student at a time. Whether we call it “shared responsibility” as we heard in the State of the Union, or working together from the one to the many as Dean Ramos is doing, we will become a better nation if we all do our part to keep college affordable, increase educational quality at all levels, and help more students graduate from our colleges and universities with a world-class education, prepared for success in the 21st century!

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education


  1. We not only need more options for students in “higher education,” we also need more options for teachers, instructors and professors.

    Many excellent teachers and instructors are strangled by regulations and due to burdensome certification and standards requirements are blocked from presenting excellent material and curricula.

    Ego within scholarship is impeding the possible as it maintains power and the status quo.

  2. I agree with the previous commentator that there should be right to work legislation passed across the entire country.

    Colleges and universities will never achieve affordability so long as students can continue to borrow excessive amounts of money. A student should be able to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy just like other forms of debt. Additionally, colleges and universities should have to bear the financial risk of default. This would help put pressure on such institutions to make sure students graduate with a marketable skills.

    Currently, colleges and universities are no better than the banks that sold mortgages without keeping any risk–the tendency is always to encourage the borrower to borrow more without any real underwriting of the risk.

    Colleges and universities must be pressured to lower the cost of education if it is to be affordable. Lay off administrators, pay administrators less, put teachers into the classrooms more (cut down substantially on the number of meetings they all attend and they will have more time to teach–how many people does it now take to make a decision?), and cut the numbers of luxury dorms and rec centers.

  3. A key step to helping more students complete college is for the Department of Education to require counselor training programs to teach school counselors how to guide students through the college selection process. This lack of training is the worst kept secret among school counselors, but no one seems to want to do anything about it– it’s time DoE acted. For more on this crucial topic, see

    • I agree with Patrick’s post wholeheartedly about upgrade in school counselors, except at the community college level. For this exact reason, our college age child is now attending community college for a third year instead of being able to transfer to a four year university due to faulty counseling during the first two years. Had they more closely monitored her coursework and goals, they would have guided her more directly toward transfer after two years, even after she had been open about her intention of transferring all along. They would have seen that her AS General Studies courses needed tweaking and would have encouraged more math (this was an associate of science so more math should be a requirement). But as it went, the math sections and times were so few, it never fit into a schedule, and counselors would always just tell her that “yes, you’re on track.” Unfortunately her only recourse is to do CC for another year to complete a REAL transferrable track. Not exactly what she or us was anticipating for her third year. She could get into a four year, but not under a preferrred major. So BEWARE if you go the community college route. It’s not all that ideal, follow it closely and in conjunction with all the fine print with an intended four year university. Many majors encourage you to transfer after a year at CC. It can be a huge waste. We are living that.

  4. Certainly Ms. Kanter is dedicated to the cause of improving the educational system in our country and believes in the efforts at the federal level to accomplish that cause.

    However, we must judge our efforts by results not by our good intentions alone.

    One of the results of the good intentions of the “No Child Left Behind” legislation is that our local school districts now dedicate almost 10% of the school year to mandated standardized tests rather than using that time to educate our children. The power of the purse string is used. If States do not comply with federal guidlines, tax dollars taken from local taxpayers in the school district will not be returned to the States and eventually to the local school districts.

    Now the well intentioned bureaucrats in Washington DC are turning their gaze on our college institutions. Again the power of the purse string is used. This time to select winners and losers according to the whims of our well intentioned bureaucrats.

    Ms Kanter refers to many well intentioned programs that rely on the extraction of tax dollars from citizens and given to individuals and institutions that meet her priorities.

    The facts are, we as citizens have our own priorities. I am struggling with putting three boys through college. The implementation of Ms. Kanter’s priorities inhibits my ability to meet my priorities by reducing my after tax earnings.

    I have a few suggestions for Ms. Kanter that would go a long way toward meeting the common objective which is to increase the quality and availability of education for ALL Americans.

    1. Eliminate the Federal Department of Education – Education is a local issue best handled at the local level. Get the Washington bureaucrats out of our classroom.
    2. Eliminate the practice of granting tenure to teachers and professors – Who has a job today that they cannot be fired from for poor performance?
    3. Pass Right to Work Legislation eliminating the requirement that all teachers must join a union in order to teach in our schools.
    4. Return to the past when teachers unions were not allowed to go on strike and if they do go on strike, allow school boards the ability to replace them with the thousands of qualified teaching graduates currently looking for full time employment.

    If we are ever to improve our current education system, which is actually very good, our only hope is to reduce the influence of Washington bureaucrats. We need to return the power to the people who really care the most about education, the parents of children attending those schools and institutions.

Comments are closed.