Teaming Up to Support Rural Community Colleges

It’s no secret that community colleges are leading the way to achieving the President’s goal for the United States to once again have the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020. Community colleges are hubs for career-training, re-training, adult education and for recent high school graduates seeking a pathway into the careers of their choice.

Secretary Duncan, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and their agencies are working together to support community colleges as they provide postsecondary education and career training in rural areas. Photo courtesy of USDA.

For many residents of rural areas, community colleges also provide the closest access to postsecondary education and a way to obtain the skills needed for existing jobs.  However, like some of their students, many rural community colleges are doing more with less as state budgets are being cut and new resources are becoming harder to find.

During the 2011 rural community colleges conference in Oklahoma, many attendees asked about funding and resources available from the Department of Education but few were as familiar with opportunities in other federal agencies. Some rural community college administrators were unaware of the significant infrastructure of support available through their USDA Rural Development state and local offices.

As the American Jobs Act languishes in Congress, preventing an infusion of $5 billion for modernization from reaching community colleges, the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture are working together to guide campuses serving high-poverty rural communities to existing federal resources.

During a recent conference call with members of the Rural Community College Alliance and the American Association of Community Colleges, nearly 100 participants learned about USDA Rural Development programs and funding opportunities that can be used to improve facilities, support distance learning, and provide home ownership assistance as a recruitment and retention tool for faculty.

The USDA Community Facilities Program can be used for construction and renovation of classrooms and dormitories, and even to purchase transportation vehicles to serve campus facilities. The USDA Single Family Housing Programs provide homeownership opportunities to low- and moderate-income rural Americans through several loan, grant, and loan guarantee programs.

USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants can cover the cost of equipment for video conferencing and other distance learning equipment. USDA’s Community Connect program provides grants to build broadband Internet infrastructure and establish community centers to offer free public access in rural areas where broadband service is least likely to be available, but where it can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life for citizens.

These are a few of the ways that USDA can support rural communities, and the Department of Education is working to increase awareness of how college leaders can access these opportunities.

John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach

In America, Education Is Still the Great Equalizer

“In America, education is still the great equalizer,” Secretary Duncan told a group of graduates at Fayetteville State University’s Winter Commencement on Saturday. Duncan described the importance of education in today’s economy, and that education is, in the long run, one of the best investments one can make for the future.

On average, Americans who have earned a bachelor degree will earn roughly one million dollars more over their lifetime than students with only a high school diploma, Duncan explained.

Secretary Duncan noted that the Obama Administration is taking big steps to keep student debt manageable through the recently introduced Pay As You Earn proposal. For those who qualify, the proposal would cap monthly student loan payments to what people can afford. “In practical terms,” Duncan explained, “1.6 million Americans could literally see their loan payments go down by hundreds of dollars a month.”

“We want people to be able to follow their heart and passion—and not just chase a big paycheck because they have to pay back loans. America can’t afford to lose that talent,” Duncan said.

Click here to read more about the Pay As You Earn proposal.

Additional Resources:

  • Find the right college for you with the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator.
  • Click here to visit ED’s College Affordability and Transparency Center for information about tuition and net prices at postsecondary institutions.

Latest “School Days” Video Features “Pay As You Go” Proposal on Student Loan Debt

President Obama’s “Pay as You Go” proposal to make college more affordable is the top story in the October 2011 edition of School Days, the U.S. Department of Education’s monthly video journal. Other topics featured include Secretary Arne Duncan’s visit to Puerto Rico, higher education summits with Indonesia and India, and West Coast town meetings with parents and teachers.

Watch the October 2011 School Days here:

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Rural Recruits: College and Careers Available

Even in a remote rural community like Altus, Okla., there are clear connections between education and the economy.

Pilot Javier Orama

Captain Javier Orama

During a recent visit to the Air Education and Training Command at Altus Air Force Base, I was reminded of a question I hear occasionally: “Why should rural students go to college when there aren’t many jobs in their communities?” I often wonder how different these communities would be if more youth and adults pursued college and other postsecondary career training opportunities.

Nationally, rural students are less likely to go to college than their peers from urban and suburban areas. At the same time, many rural communities need skilled workers more than ever to fill existing jobs, to attract new employers, and to cultivate entrepreneurship as a means for reinventing their local economies.

Even rural youth considering joining the military will need to continue their education beyond high school.

Altus AFB prepares military personnel for a variety of careers. The Air Education and Training Command provides classroom instruction complemented by computer-based training, and individual tutoring for Airmen in a variety of fields. The base even developed a “grow-your-own” mechanics program.

After climbing inside the enormous C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft during my visit, Captain Javier Orama emphasized the demand for math and technology skills in today’s Air Force.

“The C-17 is a flying computer. In fact, it’s many different computers,” he said.

Captain Orama is a pilot and an instructor for pilots training to fly the C-17 on airlift and refueling missions. The C-17 is a flexible, high-tech aircraft that can refuel in-flight and continue its mission indefinitely. If you dream of flying like Captain Orama, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree. Officers are generally required to be college or university graduates. College and career-level training is also a prerequisite for loadmasters and mechanics supporting the C-17 missions.

More U.S. military personnel come from rural areas than any other parts of our nation. And like private industry, the armed services are also looking for a highly skilled workforce.

Rural young people and adults need access and encouragement to pursue postsecondary education and training programs to lift up their families and communities, and our nation needs them to aim high.

John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach

Setting Sail for Success

Photos courtesy of U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command

NAVAL STATION GREAT LAKES – Nine hundred and sixty new sailors were formally welcomed into the U.S. Navy on Friday by Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, when she delivered remarks at the basic training graduation for Navy recruits.

Kanter served as the reviewing officer for the ceremony, held at Naval Station Great Lakes, where every Navy recruit in the country undergoes an 8-week boot camp for sailors.  Fittingly, it was one of the last events Department of Education staff participated in on the final day of the “Education and the Economy” bus tour.

Before the ceremony, Kanter toured the USS TRAYER, where the recruits underwent Battle Stations 21: a rigorous 12-hour capstone training exercise to test their skills in everything from routine activities like loading stores and getting underway, to handling emergency conditions like floods and shipboard fires.  The TRAYER is a _ scale model Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, housed within a 157,000-square-foot building, and equipped with salvaged components.  The training simulator uses Hollywood-style special effects – including controlled flooding and fire – to create challenging and realistic training scenarios that gauge the readiness of the recruits.

“The program has been rigorous, demanding incredible dedication and persistence from every single recruit,” Kanter said during her remarks before row upon row of sailors dressed in gleaming dress whites.  “The experiences these sailors have had here at Naval Station Great Lakes serve as a reminder of the importance of dedicating one’s self to service and education all through life.”

After her remarks, Under Secretary Kanter met with a number of graduating sailors and their families, including Dominique Wright, from Leonardtown, Maryland, who received a Military Excellence Award as the top recruit of the class.

“Watching the superior performance of these newly minted sailors, I’m confident that the nation’s future will be a secure and prosperous one,” Kanter said afterwards.

Daren Briscoe
Office of Communications and Outreach

Back-to-School Stop Puts Spotlight on STEM Initiatives Preparing Students for College and Careers

On Friday, ED’s assistant secretary for postsecondary education Eduardo M. Ochoa, held a lively discussion hosted by Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) regarding innovative STEM initiatives designed to prepare students to succeed in college and make an easier transition into the workforce.  Ochoa’s visit was part of the Department of Education’s back-to-school tour that included over 50 events throughout the Midwest.

Representatives from NEIU spoke of the success of their GEAR UP partnership grant, which helped ignite student interest in a broad range of medical careers through a partnership with Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital. The Children’s Memorial Hospital provides opportunities for middle and high school students, from low income backgrounds, to shadow health care providers and participate in internships and summer programs relating to a broad range of medical careers.  The grant also engages students in hands-on STEM activities such as robotics and game design.

Ninth grade students who participate in these types of programs typically see a significant improvement of grades and standardized test scores.  Additionally, it was noted that 89% of seniors who participated in GEAR UP programs completed and submitted Federal Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) applications, demonstrating their motivation to finish high school and continue onto college.

Students highlighted how their participation in GEAR UP activities sparked interest in science, inspiring them to major in science fields in college.  Other forum participants, representing businesses, a museum, grant programs and other universities, passionately described their engagement and support around STEM education.

The forum sparked a great deal of cross fertilization, which we hope will provide additional opportunities for future collaboration and continued success.

Lynn Mahaffie
Office of Postsecondary Education

Back-to-School Bus Tour: Highlights from Tuesday, September 6

Dr. Kanter with Monroe Community College students

A day before the official start of the Back-to-School Bus Tour, several Department officials hit the road early for events in Ohio and New York.  Here are some highlights:

Cleveland Middle School Helps Put ED Tour in Motion
Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Michael Yudin got fit with students at a Cleveland-area National Blue Ribbon School, during exercises led by the Cleveland Browns’ mascot, and other guests.  Read the full post.

Students “Strive” for College and Career Success
In Rochester, New York, Under Secretary Martha Kanter spoke with students, teachers, and state and local partners at Monroe Community College, as part of the area’s Cradle-to-Career/Strive Network Forum.  Read more about the event and the Strive Network, a grassroots partnership to provide the region’s students with a roadmap to excel in school, earn a high school diploma, and attain an associate or bachelor’s degree.  The Rochester group aims to match the momentum of a nearby effort in Buffalo, funded by a Department of Education Promise Neighborhoods grant.

Classes Get a High-Tech Boost in Rural New York
Director of Rural Outreach John White celebrated the first day of school at Cuba-Rushford Central School, in upstate New York.  He joined middle-schoolers using interactive technologies to study the three branches of government, and high school students in a Fisheries and Wildlife Technology Class, planning research projects that integrate math, science, English and computer technology.  From managing their own trout hatchery, to using radio telemetry applications to track whitetail deer, students gain STEM skills through hands-on applications.  Check out this innovative classroom.

You can follow the progress of this year’s back-to-school tour by visiting, by following #EDTour11 on Twitter and by signing up for email updates from the Department of Education.

Finding an Affordable College Just Got Easier

Summer is here, and many recent high school graduates may still be weighing which college or university to attend during the upcoming fall semester. ED’s recently-launched College Affordability and Transparency Center is making that decision much easier by providing students and their families with an easy-to-use website that identifies the most reasonably-priced universities, as well as the institutions whose prices rise at the highest rates.

The Affordability and Transparency Center not only allows college applicants and their families to compare tuition rates at colleges and universities, but students can pinpoint their search on a variety of criteria, including whether the college is a two- or four-year program, public or private, or a for-profit or not-for-profit college. The site also allows comparisons of the cost of a year at college based on its listed tuition and fees or its “net price” (tuition and fees minus grant and scholarship aid). To find the cost of a specific vocational program, there is a search feature to compare the costs of similar career programs—such as nursing or computer science—across different schools. Finally, to keep students and families prepared for the future, the Affordability and Transparency Center lets you see which colleges have the highest annual tuition or net cost increases.

Higher education is a strong investment, and it is crucial that families and students are able to make informed decisions. Through the College Affordability and Transparency Center, ED is providing valuable data on which colleges are the most cost-effective. Students shouldn’t rule out college because they can’t find one that suits their budget—the Center will help students and families find the right school with the right program at the right price.

Get started by visiting ED’s College Affordability and Transparency Center.

Ben Firke is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the Department of Education

A Mother’s Message To Her Eighth Grader – “It’s Not ‘If You Go To College,’ But ‘When‘”

This week, the U.S. Department of Education released a new Spanish-language video that highlights the need for students to begin thinking about college long before they enter high school.

The video introduces Demi Moreno, an 8th grader at Whittier Health Science Academy in San Antonio, Texas, who has already set an ambitious career goal of becoming a lawyer.  We watch as Demi’s parents, teachers, principal and peers encourage her to prepare for college now — by taking tough courses, paying attention to her grades, and, most of all, having high expectations for herself.

“We began talking to our children about college on their first day of school,” says her mother, Luz Moreno.  “It was never, ‘if you go to college.’  It was always, clearly, ‘when you go to college.’ And that has always put the idea clearly in their minds that they must go to college.”

President Obama has set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.  By that date, to ensure a competitive workforce, at least 60 percent of U.S. adults will need to have earned a degree from a two-year or four-year institution.

The new video is called “La universidad: el sueño comienza hoy” (“College: the Dream Begins Today”) and runs approximately six minutes.  The piece is closed captioned in both English and Spanish.   Just click the “cc” button” and select the language option you prefer.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Teachers: If Your Students Think They Can’t Afford College…

Secretary Arne Duncan watches a student in Denver, Colorado complete her FAFSA form online.

Secretary Arne Duncan watches a student in Denver, Colorado complete her FAFSA form online.

Point them to these FAFSA Resources!

As a high school English teacher in a rural section of North Carolina, I often found that my students avoided college preparatory classes because they believed, erroneously, that a college education was out of the question for them financially.

It didn’t help when I brought out pie charts demonstrating that of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in America, half require a bachelor’s degree or more. For them, the expense of tuition, fees, books, and board made college seem like a pipe dream.

If I could change one thing for these students, after working at the U.S. Department of Education since July 2010, it would be to let them know that even if they are the first person in their family to seek higher learning, there is money to finance their college dreams.

The federal government awards $150 billion annually in financial aid to students who might not otherwise be able to afford college. This aid takes the form of federal grants (like the Pell Grant, which doesn’t have to be paid back), federal work-study programs, and low-interest federal student loans. For students who have the desire to attend and the skills to succeed, college is absolutely possible, regardless of race, gender or income.

During class, I would also want to point my students to the following resources that can help them to make a plan to pay for college.

Current high school seniors should, if they haven’t already, go to the Federal Student Aid FAFSA site and apply for aid. The federal government has a very generous 18-month timeframe to submit the FAFSA (from January 1 of every year through June 30 of the following year) but many states and postsecondary institutions have earlier deadlines, so it is critical that high school students apply as soon as possible after Jan. 1 of their senior year. The FAFSA application form as been recently redesigned so that it is easier to complete.

Students in grades 6-11 can go to the FAFSA Forecaster, which enables them to predict what kinds of financial aid they may qualify for so that they can begin college planning.

All students may also be interested in the College Preparation Checklist, which is a “to do” list, starting with elementary school, to help students prepare academically and financially for education beyond high school. Each section is split into subsections for students and parents, explaining what to do and which publications or websites might be useful to them.

The College Board also houses a College Matchmaker that enables students to enter in characteristics of schools that interest them—such as size, location, majors available, etc.—and be matched with schools that meet their needs.

Teachers wanting to help motivate students to think about college may want to direct students to “I’m Going to College” on Federal Student Aid’s site. This site includes testimonials and a motivational video.

Students having questions or needing assistance completing the FAFSA can call toll-free: 1-800-433-3243.

At the end of their time with us, all teachers want our students to learn more, to go to a college, university, or community college. We want them to have satisfying work and financially secure futures. Pointing them to these resources is one step in the right direction.

Laurie Calvert
Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County, N.C.

Your Turn to Weigh In on the 2011 Commencement Challenge

Cross-posted from the White House Blog

Do you remember your high school commencement speaker?  Neither do I.

This year, one lucky high school will have an unforgettable commencement speaker – President Obama – and we need your help to determine which school it will be.

As part of the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, public high schools around the country submitted an application earlier this year that describe how their school is preparing students for college and a career. We’ve narrowed down the schools to six finalists and now it’s your turn to weigh in.  Each school produced a short video with help from the Get Schooled Foundation and essay. You can review and rate each school on a scale of 1-5 (5 being the highest) between today and Friday April 29 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Your ratings will help us narrow down the pool to three finalists and President Obama will select the winning school from one of these three.

Check out this video of President Obama asking for your feedback on the Commencement Challenge finalists, and then head over to to rate each finalist.


The Commencement Challenge gives public high schools a chance to demonstrate how their school best prepares students for college and a career, helping America win the future by out-educating our competitors and achieving President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Each of the six finalists schools are an excellent example of the best America’s public schools have to offer.  Take a moment to watch their videos, read their essays and rate each school.

Melody Barnes is the Director of the Domestic Policy Council

Final Community College Regional Summit Focuses on Veterans, Military Members and Families

Tomorrow, April 15, ED will hold its fourth and final Community College Regional Summit at San Diego City College in San Diego, Calif. The focus of this one-day event is on Exemplary Programs for Veterans, Military Members, and Families, and will bring together federal, labor, industry and philanthropic partners to discuss how each entity can support local community college efforts to meet the President’s goal of having the best-educated workforce and the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Other topics to be discussed at the summit include solutions and promising practices in college completion, developmental education, industry-education partnerships, services to military service-members and veterans, transitioning adults to community colleges, and successful transfer programs to four year colleges and universities. The Summit will also provide a forum to identify local, state and national recommendations for increasing community college completion in order to meet the President’s 2020 goal.

Join us at 12:00 PM EDT on April 15, 2011 for a LIVE webcast of the summit (link will become active when the summit begins).