President Obama has made it clear that in the capstone year of his presidency, he’ll continue making education a top priority – including initiatives and investments that place a college degree within reach for millions more Americans.
As he noted in his final State of the Union address in January, as a nation, we’ve made important progress to ensure that more students graduate from high school with the skills they need to thrive in college, in their careers, and in their communities. But challenges remain, and we must be committed to bold solutions.
College still is the best investment that Americans can make in their future. And a great education is just as important for engaging in society and safeguarding our democracy. That’s why students from every background – including low-income, minority, and first-generation students, as well as adults with jobs and families – are seeking access to postsecondary education and training.
This Administration has made historic investments in financial aid for postsecondary students. And in 2014 – the most recent year for which we have data—our country saw the largest and most diverse class of students enrolling in higher education in our history. The numbers of African-American and Latino college students are up by more than a million since 2008.
But the odds are still too steep for too many. Many students hesitate to pursue higher education, concerned by rising costs and a college marketplace that can be confusing, especially for many first-generation students. Furthermore, only about 60 percent of those who do enroll in a bachelor’s degree program complete their education within six years. And at least a third of those who do graduate take longer than expected, potentially adding even greater costs for students and families.
Borrowers who drop out of college face a three times greater risk of defaulting on their student loans compared with those who graduate. As a result, the 2017 budget proposes key reforms and provides institutional and student supports and incentives for on-time and accelerated degree attainment, which are aimed at making college more affordable, student aid more accessible, and student loan repayment easier, as well as fostering innovation and protecting students and taxpayers. The proposals in the budget will:
Dramatically Reduce Costs for Students and Families
- The budget renews the call for the America’s College Promise (ACP) initiative, a partnership with states designed to make two years of community college free for responsible students. Through an investment of $61 billion over the next decade, students would be able to earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree and earn the skills needed to succeed in the workforce – at no cost. ACP also would provide grants to schools that support new low-income students, including those transferring from a community college. Students would be able to receive up to two years of college at these institutions at zero or significantly reduced tuition.
- The budget invests in current and future generations of U.S. students by providing maximum funding for Pell Grant awards, adjusted for inflation beyond 2017. This will ensure that the dollars are protected from eroding in value in the years ahead.
- In addition to making the FAFSA available earlier, as announced by President Obama in September 2015, the budget also would simplify the FAFSA by eliminating burdensome and unnecessarily complex questions to make it easier for students and families to access federal student aid and afford a postsecondary education.
- The budget also would create a competitive, $30 million Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) Innovation for Completion Fund to encourage innovative, evidence-based student success strategies to increase the number of low-income students and students of color completing their degrees.
- And the President’s budget request focuses on streamlining income-driven repayment plans that cap loan payments at a reasonable price for borrowers, and helping borrowers to manage their debt more effectively, including strengthening and streamlining teacher loan forgiveness programs.
Encourage and Reward Better Student Outcomes
- To support and incent students to complete their coursework on time or ahead of time, the budget includes a Pell for Accelerated Completion program, making year-round Pell Grant funds available to students who take a full course load and have used up their existing award.
- The budget would provide an additional $300 On-Track Pell Bonus for students who stay on course to complete college on time by taking at least 15 credit hours per semester.
- It also will meet the demand for a third round of the First in the World initiative, with $100 million to implement and evaluate innovative and evidence-based strategies that boost student success, including a $30 million set-aside for HBCUs and MSIs. In 2014 and 2015, the Department saw significant levels of interest in this program, and was able to fund less than 6 percent of all applications received.
- The College Opportunity and Graduation Bonus program would reward colleges with strong records of enrolling and graduating significant numbers of low-income students on time, and encourage more colleges to improve their outcomes.
- And, with plans to reform campus-based student aid programs, the budget focuses on funding schools that provide a quality education at a reasonable price, particularly for low-income students.
Expand Postsecondary Options for Students
- The President’s Second Chance Pell proposal will provide prisoners who have served their time and are about to re-enter society with support that can help them turn their lives around, offering them access to Pell funds to help pay for the college and training opportunities that lead to new skills and new opportunities.
- And, to complement ACP, the budget will support a $75 million American Technical Training Fund, supporting the creation and expansion of tuition-free, short-term or accelerated job training programs to help more workers compete for high-demand fields like healthcare, manufacturing, and information technology. The Departments of Education and Labor will partner in launching this innovative effort.
In the 21st century, skills and education go a long way toward determining our success as individuals and as a nation. The FY 2017 budget is designed to increase equity and excellence in higher education, with ambitious proposals to reduce college costs, spark new approaches and scale up proven practices to serve students better, and create wider avenues for Americans – regardless of background or circumstance – to change their life chances and achieve their dreams.
Learn more about the full budget request for education.
Melissa Apostolides is a member of the Communications Development Team in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.