Duncan Invites Student Feedback on College Access and Affordability

Student Voices Session

Students from the Washington, DC, metro area met with Secretary Duncan to discuss college access and affordability.

At a recent convening at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan turned to a group of student experts for answers to the college accessibility, affordability, and completion challenges America faces today. The 15 high school and college students – who brought their firsthand knowledge to the Student Voices session from D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania — identified key improvements to the college application process throughout a conversation with Secretary Duncan and Under Secretary Martha Kanter.

While the national conversation often focuses on the cost of college courses, books, and housing, one student said that expenses begin before setting foot on a college campus. “I’ve already spent a lot of money just applying to colleges,” said the student.

Another student said that the Department should standardize and publicize fee waivers so that students know waivers exist and apply for them.

The Secretary said that most students who fill out the FAFSA apply to just one school. “We have the best [higher education] system in the world and we think [students] should have choices,” said Duncan. “How do we get more students to comparison shop?”

Students agreed that they’d utilize a website that would easily allow them to compare schools – on their own terms. “It is more important about having everything in front of you, all the statistics you can get on a school or college at one time to compare them yourself, not to be compared by someone else,” said one student.

Student Voices SessionDescribing the ideal college website, students said that it should be a “one-stop shop,” linking all government websites that provide assistance in the college application process. Students agreed that the website would also need to be interactive, visually appealing, and simple.

When it came time to apply for college, one international student said, the whole process was foreign to him. He suggested that the website allow users to make profiles that identify knowledge gaps and connect students to resources that fit their needs.

Students said that a website would be a more useful informational tool than counselors and coaches, mentors, or peers. After all, students agreed, in-school support is hard to come by: counselors are too overworked and overwhelmed to individually advise students about the college application process.

“We are doing it on our own,” said one student.

When asked if they would take earnings after graduation into account when picking a college, students said income is not as important as job security and being passionate about your work. “The end game is not always about earnings,” said a student.

As the session came to a close, Undersecretary Kanter spoke about what is next and how students could continue to help develop a comprehensive source to help in college accessibility and affordability. She spoke about the importance behind the rating system, “Can we use the rating system to improve schools? Can we use the rating system to improve consumer choice?” she asked. That is what the Department of Education is continuing to work towards in the next year. Undersecretary Kanter urged the students to continue having an active voice in the conversation by sending in feedback to collegefeedback@ed.gov. Students can also find more updates and information on the Department’s college affordability website.

 Jackie Breuer is a student at American University, and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach


  1. I work with a school district in Wisconsin. We are rural. However thorough a program called Alliance 2.0, we are developing options for our high school juniors and seniors to take dual credit classes through our high school and the UW System and while never leaving the high school. The credit cost is about $85.00/credit and we hope by the fall to offer as many as 42 credits. The cost is so low because we are using our staff as certified adjuncts and our buildings, lights etc. The philosophy is that we are already paying for this once why should taxpayers/ parents pay twice? Presently we are offering 24 credits. These are all gen. ed credits in Science, Social Studies, English and Music. We hope to have General Psych, and World Language Classes included. In addition we offer 18 credits to our local Technical College for CTE course work We are also looking at increasing credits here as well by 10 credits. We are trying to minimize the cost to families and give our students a head start on either the university or technical college track. It is also a good deal for our teaching staff as they increased the academic rigor and gain valuable professional development in a one-one mentorship with system staff members. In addition we have a business partner that has agreed that if a student who works for them completes the class with a B or better and exhibits appropriate “soft skills,” they would pay the student’s portion of the tab.

    • Our high school, as most of the public high schools in our county, also has a program with the local community college. Both of my children have participated in the program, and I feel that both have academically benefited and at the same time have been financially hurt by the program. I feel that Congress and the US Department of Education has let this type of student down. I welcome personal follow up from Arne Duncan office. I explain below.
      Student 1 planned to be a business major, and had completed 31 community college credits (community college GPA>3.0) when he graduated from high school. We planned the class distribution very carefully so the classes would meet general requirements (6cr history, 7cr math, 6cr foreign language, 6cr arts, 3cr social science, and 3cr business). Few of the credits would have transferred for the intended distribution requirements to our state public colleges, and therefore would not have cut down on the time spent in a four-year program. All 31 credits transferred to a four-year program at a private not-for-profit college. If 32 credits were transferred to the private not-for-profit college, he would not have been considered an incoming freshman and school supplied merit aid would have been impacted. We estimate the entire cost for the program at the not-for-profit school to be less then at the state school due to transfer of the 31 credits. He is currently attending the not-for-profit school and is on track to graduate as a business major from college three years post high school graduation (and of course – in debt).
      Student 2 is a high school senior and wants to be a math major. Student 2 community college class distribution was planned not to meet general requirements or rack up high grades, but to prepare a better base for college by learning the STEM mindset. Student 2 is on track to have 41 credits completed at the time of high school graduation and will enter (I hope) a four year program at the age of 17.
      Facts and results:
      College financial aid for high school students is unavailable. Financial aid was applied for high-school-graduate Student 1 indicating that Student 2 while in high school was also considered a full time community college student. We even stretched and paid full community college price for credits over the summer for Student 2. Student 2 meets the federal requirements via enrolled credits for being a college student (21 credits in 2012-2013, so far 15 credits in 2013-2014). However, Pell aid for Student 1 based on a second student from the family in college was denied. This meant the family had to make a choice – keep student 1 in college full time, so he can graduate from college 3 years post high school or cut community college credits for the public high school senior student (note this student is nationally at ACT science 99% level and SAT math 96% level). Student 2 GPA and class rank are not at the top of his high school class because he also takes harder classes that are not in his strength areas. Therefore, his GPA and class rank are not high enough to receive merit school aid at Rutgers or probably any private not-for-profit at a level where he will stay engaged. Other NJ state colleges have told us they offer the right math classes if he wants to teach K-12 math only; otherwise he will have to take additional math classes at Rutgers and transfer them back. Student 2 probably will not receive financial aid at a NJ public college as we are under the financial limit, but can not produce documentation NJ insists on-but it does not exit and so can not be provided. We are caught in the middle academically and financially. I feel that we have met the regulatory obligation, but the college told us we did not. Conclusion:
      Taking advantage of community college while in high school maybe good academically upfront – but it has long-term negative academic and financial implications.
      Counsel your high school students carefully.
      Can Congress and the US Department of Education put their money where the PR thrust and “country” says they want it to be? Duel enrollment is my childrens’ double sided sword, is it domed to be the nation’s also?
      Post Script:
      Teach your high school students to skip College Navigator and instead how to search and download an Excel table using the IPEDS Data Center function: Compare individual colleges. This is the most valuable college information tool we found. It allows for apples to apples comparison.
      I also suggest the Department of Education change the PR stance that the database is for institution and reporting research use, to a PR stance that the database is for potential college students, institution and reporting research use. Maybe this marketing change will meet political objectives as well as change the reporting institution mindset – this is a marketing tool as well as a regulatory obligation, let’s get our data reported with less grumbling and take advantage of it.

  2. I believe that children and people of all backgrounds should have the opportunity to. Study education because once someone has the thirst for it you cannot stop that person from persuing his/her dreams but according to money wise we would love to study education but we don’t have the money nor the opportunity to be excepted to university

  3. I think that there should be no Pell Grant and/or student loan lifetime limitations on any student trying to obtain his/her first bachelor degree.

  4. The high costs of colleges is mainly due to the government subsidization and overt encouragement of student debt. There is a bubble forming just like the housing market back in 2009. In the current economic environment, a college education buys you nothing and guarantees a student nothing. If the subsidy is reduced, then the colleges will have to adjust to market conditions. That means putting some out of business, consolidation, reduced services, lower salaries for professors, less building of new structures on campuses and unfortunately large classrooms and smaller selection of electives and classes. Student loans should be more liberal for STEM curriculums and other high demand field and less liberal for lower demand fields. Families need to be encouraged to save for college and rewarded with better loan terms for people than those who don’t (in similar economic situations). The notion that we have to complete college in four years has to be eliminated to encourage people to work their way through.

  5. Anyone thinking that a website can replace the guidance, advice, or opinions from a trusted adult regarding choosing the college with the best fit (financial and personal) is disillusioned. Jonathan is correct above that counseling is a necessary component to this process but High School Counselors are too busy dealing with student crises – again not a fault of Counselors but of a lack of funding for these purposes.

    Look at the success of most GEAR UP, Talent Search, Upward Bound, Educational Opportunity Center, and other TRIO grant programs which serve low-income first generation students (both school-aged and adults) and you will see that the advice/guidance from a trusted and trained professional is what gets the results, not a website.

  6. Students benefit from the advice of adults. If a trusted adult (counselor, recent college graduate, volunteer) would guide the student through a website, that would be the most effective approach. College is about learning and growing; adults can help students discover where they will learn the most and get the overarching communication and collaboration skills they will need.

  7. I like what the students said about the counselors not being able to have the time to reach All students. This is leading to less students seeking higher education. The focus tends to lean towards the higher achievers. This is not the counselors fault, but the system. I disagree with the thought that a website would be better than using mentors or others. I believe that it will take them all working together, along with the website. They must have a shared vision.

    • Our experience with the high school guidance counselors is different. The high achievers are left to do the college search with little assistance because it is felt they can figure it out. The low achievers receive the most help in our district.

  8. Sticker shock is not only a part of tuition costs, but the cost of books is outrageous. Their cost is often equal to or greater than the cost of tuition. Publishing companies need to be held accountable for their gouging of students. The needless changes in editions which produce little if any substantial improvement of the text but renders the resale or use of used textbooks almost impossible is a practice that needs to be stopped.
    Publishers are the only ones who gain substantially from the incessant testing practices that are currently the norm, yet they continue to milk students for all they can get. If a student is successful in receiving financial aid for tuition, then they still
    face the hurdle of purchasing their books. I see this a serious detriment to the education of the student population.

Comments are closed.