Innovators Come Together to Brainstorm Solutions and Take Action

By Martha Kanter

Over the last week, more than 200 national public and private sector innovators from higher education, technology, and industry joined us at round tables, at white boards, and over large sheets of poster paper to brainstorm creative ideas to improve postsecondary education. These groups of entrepreneurs and software developers, college and university scholars and students, along with policymakers and others identified solutions and made plans to take immediate action.

These individuals came together at two “Data Jams” convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Department of Education, the first at MIT on December 11th and the second at Stanford on December 15th. Leaders, experts and students were challenged to use open data and work collaboratively to solve a series of challenges to increase student access and success to reach the President’s goal “for the U.S. to have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world by the year 2020!”

Specifically, the groups were charged to address the ambitious agenda outlined by President Obama in August 2013 to increase value and affordability in postsecondary education. A key component of this agenda is to promote innovation and competition through the use of data and by using new approaches to tackle old problems.

Participants at our Data Jams announced action steps in many areas:

  • Develop new tools to allow students to make informed decisions about whether to go to college, where to go, what to study, how to finance it, and how to manage student loan debt when out of school;

  • Use data and analytic techniques to improve teaching, learning, and student success in online courses and MOOCs;

  • Build on the experience of faculty and researchers to develop a way to share evidence-based practices, pedagogies, and content for hybrid and online teaching; and

  • Begin a conversation about articulating open data standards and privacy-appropriate sharing of online learning data.

Far from being one-off conversations or developing solutions that sit on shelves, participants left the Data Jams volunteering to take action in the next month to implement the ideas. Some will develop new or expanded websites, products, or tools for students; others will enlist colleagues and friends to advance the work; and still others will take concrete steps in the next few weeks that will lay the foundation for transformational change in the future.

We won’t have long to wait to see the results! Next month, at an Education Datapalooza, in Washington, D.C., the White House and U.S. Department of Education will highlight and celebrate some of the innovations that result from the Data Jams and similar gatherings over the course of the fall in response to President Obama’s call to action.

Want to get involved? Many of the teams assembled to prepare for the Datapalooza are working hard and can use the help of others who have time, expertise, or other resources to lend to the effort. Email us at if you want to get involved.

We would like to thank our partners at edX, the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, and Stanford University for co-hosting the December Data Jams and to each of the participants who gave their time and wisdom to advancing this work.

The choices students and their families face with regard to postsecondary education are complex, and data-driven tools can help simplify the pathways to a quality education and help to improve student outcomes. Federal government data resources should be leveraged to help students and their families better understand the federal financial aid available to them and all of the information that is key to expanding access and enrollment among low-income and first-generation households. It critical to our nation’s long term civic and economic prosperity that we continue to help students from all backgrounds achieve an affordable postsecondary education.

We know that the best solutions to these problems rarely come from the federal government and that local and regional innovative approaches have the potential to help us increase access, value, and affordability in postsecondary education. At the Datapalooza next month, we will see just how these innovative approaches are developing to benefit educational opportunity for all!

Martha Kanter is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education

New Tools to Support Students in Preparing for College and a Call for Innovative Ideas

Last August, President Obama outlined an ambitious plan to increase value and affordability in postsecondary education. There were a number of commitments he made in his proposal, and, today, the U.S. Department of Education is announcing further action on the President’s initiatives.

LogoPresident Obama told students and families that helping to ensure their debt is manageable is a priority, and equipping counselors and advisers with the resources they need to help students prepare for higher education and understand college costs is a key component. To meet these goals, the Department has launched a “one-stop shop” for guidance counselors, college advisers, mentors and volunteers to assist students through the process of choosing and financing their higher education.

The Financial Aid Toolkit, available at, consolidates financial aid resources and content into a searchable online database. That makes it easy for individuals to quickly access the information they need to support students on their path to college, including details on how to apply for financial aid along with presentations, brochures and videos.

By equipping counselors and advisers with financial aid information in an easy-to-use format, we can help to ensure that current and potential students get the assistance they need to successfully navigate the process of planning and paying for a postsecondary education.

Request for input on college ratings

President Obama also directed the Department of Education to develop a ratings system to identify colleges that provide a good value and to increase college affordability information available to students.

This fall, Department officials have been traveling to cities across the country, listening to hundreds of students, parents, college leaders, state officials, education organizations and many others about their ideas on how to best craft a college ratings system that would better inform students and encourage institutions to improve.  This week the Department will submit a Request for Information (RFI) to publish in the Federal Register asking experts and researchers to weigh in.

This RFI will complement the ongoing engagement efforts to inform the development a college ratings system that is useful to students and takes into account the diversity of America’s colleges and universities. The Department will continue to encourage the public to share ideas through

Call for new ideas and innovations in higher education

Another major component of President Obama’s plan is to encourage innovation. More Americans are looking for college options that offer a good education at an affordable price. Innovation offers the potential to dramatically reshape and improve postsecondary education in ways that increase value by raising quality and decreasing costs.  This is a pivotal moment, and we want to do all that we can to encourage responsible innovations in higher education that build on promising practices and develop an evidence base so that the highest-impact practices can be identified, replicated and eventually brought to scale.

To encourage innovation, the President directed the Department of Education to shine a light on effective, innovative practices and challenged leaders from across the nation to accelerate innovation and build on success. Further, he directed the Administration to encourage these ideas by removing regulatory hurdles, increasing access to federal databases and simplifying pathways to higher education.  To do so, the U.S. Department of Education will launch a limited number of “experimental sites” to test new ideas. This authority under Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA) allows the Secretary to waive specific Title IV, HEA requirements regarding the federal student financial assistance programs to allow for responsible innovations coupled with evaluations of their effectiveness. Today, we are asking the public, including the higher education community and others with a stake in a more educated workforce and society, to send us ideas for experimental sites.

We invite input from a diverse array of stakeholders on topics to spur responsible innovation that increases college value and affordability.  In August, President Obama identified several promising areas where innovative practices could do so. These include:

  • Enabling students to earn federal student aid based on how much they learn, rather than the amount of time they spend in class, including through competency-based programs that combine traditional credit-hour and direct assessment of student learning.
  • Enabling high school students to access Pell Grants to take college courses early so they can earn a degree in an accelerated time frame.
  • Allowing the use of federal student aid to pay for assessments when students seek academic credit for prior learning as part of a program of study.

These are just some of the many areas where innovative experiments could advance our evidence base about approaches to increasing college value and affordability. We look forward to receiving your additional ideas. For more information on how to submit an idea, please review this Federal Register notice or the Department’s Dear Colleague Letter. The deadline for submissions is Jan. 31, 2014.

The U.S. Department of Education seeks to launch experiments that allow innovation to flourish, while also protecting taxpayer resources and building the research base for what works. In all of the Department’s efforts to encourage innovation and enable colleges and universities to increase quality while reducing costs, we value the input and partnerships with the postsecondary education communities and stakeholders so ultimately, millions of Americans can access a high-quality higher education

Martha Kanter is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education and David Soo is the Senior Policy Adviser, Office of the Under Secretary

Department Launches College Affordability and Value Outreach Initiative Today – Starting with Student Advocates

President Obama

President Obama discusses his plan to make college more affordable during a speech at Henninger High School, in Syracuse, N.Y. Official White House photo.

We know a college degree is the best investment students can make in their future. But despite historic investments and reforms, attending college has never been more expensive. Too many young adults are burdened with debt as they seek to launch a career, start a family, buy a home or save for retirement – and too many students are afraid to pursue higher education because they think it’s too expensive.

The federal government provides over $150 billion each year to support students as they pursue postsecondary education – from public and private universities to community colleges to technical schools and online programs. Although choosing a college is one of the most important decisions that students face, clear and useful information about the cost and quality of different colleges is often hard to find.

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Making College Affordable for Every American

I’m thrilled today that President Obama is moving forward with an ambitious new plan to make college more affordable for every American. We know that higher education is more important than ever, but we also know it’s never been more expensive. We have heard from students and families across the country who are worried about affording college, and we believe that higher education cannot be a luxury that only advantages the wealthy.

Cost of College GraphicsCollege must remain an accessible and affordable opportunity that provides a good value for all Americans. We want college to be a secure investment for every student from every background who is willing to work hard, an investment that prepares our nation’s students for a good job and a bright future.

We believe the cost of college is a shared responsibility among the federal government, states, colleges and universities, and our students and families. Since 2009, the Obama Administration and Congress have worked together to make historic investments in higher education. We  raised the maximum Pell Grant grant award by more than $900, created the American Opportunity Tax Credit, now offer additional loan repayment programs that help students manage their debt, and enacted landmark federal student aid reforms that eliminated wasteful bank subsidies and increased by more than 50 percent the number of students attending college from low-income families.

There are remarkable examples of states and institutions across our nation who have taken innovative steps to help American families afford college. New York has committed to restraining tuition growth in its public community colleges and universities over five years, and the University of Maryland system, which operates an Effectiveness and Efficiency Initiative, has saved more than $356 million and helped stabilize tuition for four straight academic years.

But we need to see more innovation and initiative to ensure that college remains a good value for students and families, and that’s what the President’s announcement today is all about. Earlier today at the University at Buffalo, the President laid out a plan with three concise steps to make college affordable. The steps are outlined in this White House fact sheet, and include:

  • Linking federal financial aid to college performance, so colleges must demonstrate they provide good value for the investment students make in higher education
  • Sparking innovation and competition by shining a spotlight on college performance, highlighting colleges where innovations are enabling students to achieve good results, and offering colleges regulatory flexibility to innovate
  • And – because we know that too many students are struggling to repay their debt today – President Obama is committed to ensuring that students who need it can have access to the ‘Pay As You Earn’ plan that caps federal student loan payments at 10 percent of discretionary income, so students can better manage their debt

We need more colleges and universities to keep college affordable while delivering a high quality education, not only for students who are first in line, but for all, especially students who are first in their families to enter college, students from disadvantaged circumstances, students with disabilities and veterans who chose service before completing their education. We need states to increase higher education funding, with proven strategies for student access and success. And we need to make sure that our annual investment of over $150 billion in federal student aid is achieving all that it can to ensure the economic and social prosperity of our nation.

The Obama Administration is going to continue to do everything we can to make college more affordable, and ensure students and families get as much value possible from their investment of effort, time and money in higher education. We’re looking forward to seeing states and institutions do their part, as well.

Additional reading: President Obama Explains His Plan to Combat Rising College Costs.

Martha Kanter is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education 

Community Colleges – Road to Building Skills for the 21st Century

Innovation in the 21st century has reshaped the world of work and civil society.  Innovation has redefined the knowledge and skills necessary to support emerging sectors of the economy.  Raising the overall level of educational attainment for all of our citizens is critical and addressing the skills gap in key industries is essential.

Community colleges are uniquely positioned to design their curricula to match local labor market conditions, making them flexible and relevant to today’s economy and job market. They are open access institutions committed to providing job-relevant educational opportunities to a broad population of students in their local communities. And their graduates are finding that they are able to participate in a knowledge-based economy, which demands a far greater level of credentialing and skills development than ever before.

The challenge, then, for the United States and India is to think of ways we can promote more opportunities for our diverse and dynamic populations to access these and other educational opportunities. When we do that, we can begin to provide 21st century job-skills linked to the global economy and responsive to local community needs.

President Obama is looking to community colleges to play a key role in increasing the number of U.S. college graduates and helping more Americans get the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in an increasingly interconnected global world.  In the United States, these institutions enroll more students than any other higher education sector, and almost half of all U.S. undergraduate students attend one of nearly 1,100 community colleges across the country.

Many of those colleges work closely with local employer partners to design course materials that lead to industry-recognized certificates and degrees.  And they are leading the way in preparing graduates for the fastest growing fields in the United States, such as healthcare, applied engineering, and green technologies.

India is faced with the similar challenge of educating its population for rapidly emerging fields, such as automotive and healthcare technologies, and is exploring best practices in the community college model to help prepare Indians for these new jobs.  It is taking steps to enable the development of a national network of community colleges in order to meet workforce demands and sustain its impressive economic growth and social prosperity as a nation.

In February, the U.S. was honored to participate in the International Community College Conference hosted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which focused on creating a network of 200 community colleges with strong ties to industry in order to equip more people with the skills and knowledge to drive India’s future.  Under Minister Pallam Raju’s leadership, the government has established the National Skill Development Agency (NSDA) to coordinate and streamline the skill development efforts of the government and the private sector to achieve the nation’s skilling targets.

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Steps Forward to Improving Quality and Strengthening Accreditation

Every student who wants the opportunity deserves a high-quality postsecondary education. For what? For lifelong success, not only in his or her educational pursuits, but for long-term success in the workforce, in civic life and – ultimately – for the personal and professional rewards that come from living a life of accomplishment, contribution, and satisfaction! At the U.S. Department of Education, we are keenly focused on how to use the various federal levers for change and improvement at our disposal to encourage successful student outcomes and improved educational performance, institutional, state-level and national. As the president has said, we all share responsibility to provide educational opportunity and value. The accreditation community is an important partner in this work and plays a key role both in assuring a basic level of quality and in improving quality.univeristy photo

While the United States has some of the world’s best postsecondary institutions, we also have too many that are of poor quality, with track records that give their students little chance of attaining the postsecondary credentials and preparation that they intended to earn—and that are so vital in today’s society and economy.  The College Scorecard that we introduced earlier this year highlights the differences among different institutions related to net price, degree completion and student debt repayment all too starkly. Making performance transparent is a lever we are using to highlight success and fix the most pressing of our problems.

But these indicators are only indicative of a part of educational performance.  We also need to know whether students are successfully achieving the level of learning they need for lifelong success in work, civic participation, and life.  And we need to ensure that high-quality learning is affordable.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan are strongly committed to strengthening collaboration for results with the nation’s diverse accreditation stakeholders to clarify, simplify and improve accreditation processes, with a more targeted, rigorous focus on value and affordability. When President Obama announced his proposals for the FY2014 budget, he called on the accreditation community to work with the Administration to:

“…consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.”

Responding to recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), last week our Department announced its intention to strengthen and better focus the accrediting agency recognition process.  Eight regional and 47 national accrediting organizations seeking renewal of their recognition from the federal government will benefit from a streamlined review process, which will focus in more depth on about 25 of up to 93 criteria that are most relevant to assessing institutional quality and the quality of student learning. This will result in a better, more targeted process that is simpler and less burdensome for accrediting agencies, NACIQI and the federal government. It is our hope and expectation that these improvements will also enable the postsecondary institutions they accredit to focus additional time and effort on quality enhancement and value.

With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act commencing next year, the Department is also eager to engage in broader conversations with the postsecondary education community and its stakeholders (e.g., students, families, businesses, non-profits, states, philanthropies, etc.) about proposals to improve the accreditation processes to increase quality—with particular attention to value and affordability.

If we define value as high quality at an affordable cost, how can we help to ensure that we achieve it?  We are looking to the accreditation community and stakeholders to help us understand and measure such concepts as “quality,” “affordability” and “value” in ways that honor and preserve the diversity of our postsecondary landscape, yet hold all of us accountable for learning and completion outcomes and their improvement. We need far more attention to qualitative and quantitative methods that can strengthen institutional quality and student learning outcomes.

This effort to strengthen the accreditation process is just one example of how the Department is working to improve quality, while also increasing access, affordability, and completion. We will also continue to address value by encouraging innovation, whether through new developments in competency-based education, new validation models that can demonstrate what students know and can do, new attention to the faculty role in high quality learning, and/or alternative accreditation systems designed to produce high quality student outcomes at an affordable price. Experimentation, innovation and reliable evidence must drive the effort to achieve better student outcomes, both in terms of completion and in terms of demonstrated achievement; thus the great need for more and better postsecondary R&D.

In the months ahead, we look forward to engaging in an ongoing and robust national dialogue with our partners and stakeholders about accreditation and other ways we can improve quality in America’s postsecondary education, with a far clearer understanding of, and focus on, value and affordability.

Martha J. Kanter is the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and David Soo is a Policy Advisor for the Office of the Under Secretary.

Coming Home: Pathways to Success for Service Members and Veterans

Cross-posted from Joining Forces.

With more than a million veterans returning home to our nation’s shores over the next five years, we have an unprecedented opportunity – and a civic obligation – to strengthen their pathways to success. To prepare for their return home and their transition back to civilian life, the Obama Administration sought – early on– to bring diverse government partners to the table, calling for an interagency planning effort to support Service members’ career readiness.

JoiningForces.govIn response to President Obama’s call to action for a career-ready military in August 2011, the Veterans Employment Initiative Task Force was launched, under the leadership of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. This interagency effort has brought together a collaboration of federal agencies – including Education, the Small Business Administration, Labor, Homeland Security and the Office of Personnel Management, as well as our military services and National Guard and Reserves –  as partners, working together on the first major redesign of the military’s Transition Assistance Program in over twenty years to develop a comprehensive, outcome-based re-entry program now called Transition Goals, Plans, Success (Transition GPS).

Each of the partner federal agencies is contributing leadership and resources to activate the implementation of Transition GPS, in accordance with the VOW to Hire Heroes Act signed into law November 21, 2011. Key to this work has been the development of a core 3-day curriculum, career readiness standards, three optional tracks for transition (Higher Education, Technical Training, and Entrepreneurship), as well as options for learning in brick-and-mortar classrooms and online. Throughout their participation, Service members will receive individualized counseling and support in the preparation of a transition plan. The program also provides Service members who are exiting active duty with an education transcript, resume, access to labor market information, employment and housing opportunities, benefits information, mentoring resources, and other support services.

Based on lessons learned from as early as 1991 when Congress mandated that a Transition Assistance Plan be enacted,  this redesign is guided by the view that preparation for the transition from military to civilian life should begin upon entry to boot camp. Transition GPS is the way forward, ensuring that our separating military men and women prepare for educational advancement and career opportunities throughout their lives. With the availability of military training, courses, and online certificate and degree opportunities, Service members will design an individual education and career plan to guide their future, both during and after their term of duty.

Today, many colleges and universities provide academic credit for individual courses, full programs of study and prior learning acquired on ships, during combat and at base locations worldwide. In the next few years, Transition GPS will provide the pathways for veterans re-entering their communities with career-ready education and training for success in the workforce. Some will exit having earned their high school diplomas, GEDs, and/or their associates’, bachelors’ or masters’ degrees. Others will seamlessly continue their education or training following their military careers in quality, affordable educational programs, taking advantage of internships or apprenticeships to be fully ready for their chosen careers.

Federal agency partners working with Military and Veterans Service Organizations have committed to maximizing resources, aligning benefits for Service members, and reducing duplication and system inefficiencies to best facilitate Service members’ transition to civilian life. More than 60 percent of jobs will require some postsecondary education or training: we want all of our veterans to take advantage of the variety of benefits available to them, so that they can choose an educational program with good job prospects that will serve them well.

Our collective goal – aspiring for every veteran to have a seamless pathway to pursuing future employment opportunities with career-ready knowledge and skills for success – is ambitious, but Transition GPS is a key component in strengthening that journey. Whether a veteran needs financial planning, an educational program like Troops to Teachers, help on campus from an experienced counselor, claims assistance, disability or other medical services from the VA, guidance on accessing federal student aid or navigating college and university opportunities, or help from the SBA to set up a small business, we stand at an extraordinary moment in time to welcome our men and women home and serve  them and their families better than we’ve ever done in the past to prepare them for bright and prosperous futures.

Rosye Cloud is the Director of Policy for Veterans, Wounded Warriors and Military Families at the White House. Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. 

Focus on Financial Empowerment This Month

President Obama has proclaimed April to be Financial Capability Month, and what better time to focus on the range of tools available to students and their families to make smart financial decisions around postsecondary education?

Piggy Bank ImageIn his proclamation, President Obama noted the new tools released by the Department of Education that give students and families clear, transparent information on college costs so they can make good choices when they invest in higher education. One of these tools—the College Scorecard—is part of President Obama’s continued efforts to hold colleges accountable for cost, value and quality. The Scorecard highlights key indicators about the cost and value of institutions across the country, helping students choose a school that is well-suited to meet their needs, is priced affordably, and is consistent with their educational and career goals.

The Obama administration has also simplified the FAFSA, the free application for federal student aid, which is the first step in determining eligibility for federal grants and loans. In addition, ED is empowering high school counselors and local leaders through the FAFSA Completion Project to help ensure that students get all of the aid for which they qualify by giving them a resource to monitor FAFSA completion rates of their students.

Furthermore, ED recently released a suite of new tools to help students and families make informed and wise decisions around college financial decisions.  The Financial Aid Shopping Sheet is an individualized financial aid award letter in a standardized format that helps students understand their costs and compare financial aid packages from different institutions so they can make smart decisions on investing in higher education. ED has also improved the financial education tools available to students, and within the last year we have revamped entrance and exit loan counseling and introduced a financial education tool for students in college.

President Obama has set a goal that the United States will once again lead the world in college completion. We will reach this goal only if we ensure that all students have the opportunity to access and complete postsecondary education—and are equipped to make the important financial decisions that will lead to a strong middle class. The US Department of Education stands committed to providing ladders of opportunity to make this a reality for all students, starting with sound financial knowledge and tools.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education

Lighting Candles Across America: The Back to School Bus Tour

Many people ask me what I like most about my job as Under Secretary of Education.  The answer is easy: it has reinforced my optimism about our shared American future and my confidence that we are rising to meet the challenges we face and harnessing opportunities ahead of us. I draw that faith from the thousands of people I have met over the past three and a half years in hundreds of communities throughout our nation who are using every talent and resource they can muster to improve our schools and systems of education at every level.

Under Secretary Kanter inspecting Navy Graduates during last year's bus tour.

Under Secretary Martha Kanter visited Navy Station Great Lakes during last year's back-to-school bus tour. This year she'll be leading the tour through several Western states. Photos courtesy of U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command

This national movement to reform and improve education is well underway and gaining momentum each day, encouraged by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. One of my responsibilities is to shine a spotlight on the innovators and entrepreneurs on the frontline of America “who would rather light a candle than curse the darkness,” as Eleanor Roosevelt famously urged the generation on whose shoulders we stand.

That’s why I am so excited to help kick off the U.S. Department of Education’s Back-to-School Bus Tour this week in Northern California. I’ll travel to Utah, Wyoming and other destinations, and the bus will continue through the U.S., making its final stop in Washington, D.C., on September 21.

We’ll be making stops to listen and to thank students, K-12 teachers, college and university professors, community leaders, business executives and others who have rolled up their sleeves to create and improve the educational opportunities whose quality and diversity will shape our nation’s future.  I’ll be blogging about our visits in the weeks ahead, but because I can’t wait to get started, I have scheduled a few visits to precede the formal kick-off of the tour on September 12.

Today, I’ll begin with a visit to the headquarters of Google, Inc. in Mountain View for an Education-Industry Roundtable with Bay Area community college leaders and business executives organized by Carl Guardino, President of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group that seeks to build deeper relationships between employers and education leaders, working together to provide world-class career and technical training in the high-demand fields that will best prepare students for the workforce.

We’ll be talking frankly and openly about the challenges and opportunities we face with dozens of individuals who are eager to create and fill thousands of new jobs in the months ahead.  The key word at this meeting is “collaboration” – which is central to achieving the education goals set by President Obama and Secretary Duncan, who have repeatedly said that when it comes to education and job-training, we need “all-hands on deck” to make our nation first in the world again in terms of educational achievement.

This afternoon, I’ll visit the College of San Mateo on the San Francisco peninsula to celebrate the launch of the first 10 pilot institutions participating in the Mentor Markerspace program, which creates physical settings where young people have an opportunity to explore their own interests, learn to use tools and materials, and develop creative projects that provide an introduction, and often advanced learning, in science, technology, engineering and math.  Scholars who study the learning sciences call these experiences “contextualized learning,” which is a sophisticated way of saying that students often do better, and learn more, if they have the opportunity to apply new knowledge in project-based activities that are intrinsically interesting and engaging.

By cultivating a love of learning, the maker movement is designed to change student perceptions about school and study and I am eager to learn more about how we can build on the strong foundation already built to bring even more students, and particularly girls, women and other underrepresented groups, into STEM fields.

Tomorrow begins at 8:00 a.m. with an early morning Presidents’ Round Table hosted by Dr. Judy Miner, President of Foothill College and convened by Dr. George Blumenthal, President of the University of California Santa Cruz. Then I’ll head to the Board of Directors meeting of the American Leadership Forum to support their P-20 Education Initiative!

These are just three examples of the learning opportunities and adventures I am anticipating in the coming week.  But I already know I will return from this bus tour with an even deeper appreciation for the capacity and desire of the American people to light candles that illuminate a better path forward for students, colleges, universities, K-12 schools and communities throughout our nation.  And I look forward to the honor of thanking and recognizing those in the lead.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education

Campus Safety Is Essential For A Successful Learning Environment: If You See Something, Say Something!

As a community college president for 16 years before being appointed the Under Secretary of Education, I wanted to do everything in my power to prevent violence on campus. Building trust among the campus constituencies with the campus chief of police was essential as a first step.

Blue light campus safety station

Photo courtesy of Howard University

According to a new report from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education, we can do a lot more to keep our campuses safe. To do so, top experts say, requires the combined efforts of students, faculty, administrators and campus security, zero-tolerance for threats and harassment, and immediate reporting of concerns to campus or law enforcement officials who are trained in threat assessment.

The evidence is compelling. The report continues that at least a third of violent attackers telegraphed their intentions to others before they struck. “The message is clear: don’t ignore threats,” says the FBI’s Supervisory Special Agent Andre Simons, who recently briefed our education team at the Department of Education. “If you hear someone say ’they are going to regret this’ or something like that, you need someone skilled to dig a little deeper and find out what that person really means. Don’t assume it is just talk.”

The best approach, according to those who conducted the recent study, is to establish a multidisciplinary Campus Threat Assessment Team that includes campus experts on law enforcement, mental health, human resources, and student affairs along with legal experts who can ensure that students’ rights are properly protected. The FBI maintains 56 field offices that offer direct links to the FBI’s Washington-based Threat Assessment experts, who are ready to offer advice and support around the clock.

I saw the importance of being vigilant and identifying potential threats in my own experience. In January 2001, local police notified me that they had charged a young man with planning an attack with the intent of causing several casualties at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, where I served as president. It was one of the most chilling experiences of my professional life. Fortunately, a good samaritan had tipped off authorities, who promptly and effectively intervened. We’ll never know if the carefully planned attack would have been carried out. But the weapons prepared by this troubled young man were all too real and the danger clear and present. I’m forever indebted to the concerned citizen who took it upon herself to report her concerns to law enforcement personnel. She may have saved dozens of lives.

The experience was a lesson for me – and it’s one that’s confirmed in this new report: if and when threats are reported, be ready, and know how to respond. Whether you are a professor, an administrator or a college president, get yourself educated before – not after. And make sure your Campus Safety Team meets and updates you on a regular basis.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education

For additional resources please see:

Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates

Implementing Behavioral Threat Assessment on Campus

The Interactive CD “A Safe School and Threat Assessment Experience: Scenarios Exploring the Findings of the Safe School Initiative” can be ordered for free online here.

GEAR UP Advances College Affordability with College Savings Accounts for 10,000 High School Students

In 2009, when President Obama proposed that by 2020 our nation would have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, the Department of Education set our agenda to that goal. Secretary Duncan calls it “our North Star.”

The promise of reaching the President’s goal is being aided by a new proposal from ED called the College Savings Account Research Demonstration Project. Sharing program design and implementation responsibility with states, philanthropies, nonprofit organizations and researchers, the U.S. Department of Education will make $8.7 million available to finance college savings accounts for 10,000 low-income middle school and high school students who participate in the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) initiative.  Congress already has provided the necessary funding, and we plan to make awards by September 30 of this year.

Piggy BankWe’re proposing that each eligible student receive $200 to start a college savings account that each participating state will open automatically and hold in trust for its students.  We further propose that students have the opportunity to earn an extra $120 a year in a dollar-for-dollar savings match program over each of the next four years.

Ultimately, students would have $1,160 in matched savings for college expenses after they graduate with a high school diploma ($200 + $480 +$480 = $1,160). When they enroll in college and start classes, those savings will be available for textbooks and other educational expenses.

We proposed to do this as part of GEAR UP because we believe that college savings accounts for low-income youth are apt to work best when coupled with the type of academic preparation and college counseling, including financial counseling, that GEAR UP provides.

At a recent discussion at the New America Foundation on the importance of saving for college, one of the key questions raised was, “will $1,160 make a difference, given how much college costs?’

There’s a good amount of evidence that savings accounts help youth and families gain financial literacy knowledge and skills and acquire positive attitudes and behaviors about saving for and attending college. Initial research suggests that students with a savings account, even with one with a small balance, are much more likely to enroll in college than students without one.

A recent study by Elliott and Beverly about the effect of college savings on the college progress of young Americans, published in the American Journal of Education, reported that “17-23 year-old children who have savings are approximately twice as likely to be on course [in completing college] as their peers without savings of their own.”

While the evidence is positive, we want to be sure that savings accounts make a difference.  The Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education will study of the impact of this project on increasing college readiness, higher education enrollment, and ultimately graduation.

Research associated with this project could help us unpack the significance of students having the financial capability to go to college and how that could positively affect student “college-going” aspirations and behavior, before, during and after college. We simply must do better as a nation and use every tool at our disposal to change these facts.

For more information on GEAR UP and this exciting project, including a copy of the Notice of Proposed Priorities, please visit here.  Over the next 30 days, we’re inviting comment on the design of this project. It’s a test. We want it to be well-designed. We want your input.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

Building America’s Future for Foster Youth

Two weeks ago during a transformative evening hosted by the Casey Family Programs, leaders from local, state and federal agencies, philanthropies and non-profit organizations convened to discuss ways in which we could partner to improve the lives of our nation’s 408,000 foster youth.

We learned from Casey leaders – and from one another — about the progress that’s been made, barriers to be tackled and creative ideas and solutions to explore to realize the promise of the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on September 11, 2011.

 National Foster Youth and Policy Council Meeting

A panel of students at the National Foster Youth and Policy Council. The students shared their stories of how they've overcome enormous barriers to graduate from college, earn advanced professional degrees and enter the workforce.

Sheila Evans Tranumn, Chair of Casey’s Board of Trustees, spoke about our role and responsibility “to build communities of hope,” to nurture the development of these children throughout our nation. She noted that since 2006, the foster youth population has declined by 19%, giving credit to the extraordinary efforts of child welfare agencies, parents, relatives and supporting organizations working together to increase opportunity and success for these children.

Casey’s President and CEO William Bell highlighted the communities of Salem, Ore., Richmond, Va., and Boulder County, Colo., which have joined forces in extraordinary ways with waivers resulting from the Act, to change the lives of foster youth with promising results, leading the way to systemic reform of the child welfare system.

Going forward, it’s clear to me that the federal government can share responsibility with states and local communities to provide these children the stable support of their educational, social and economic needs. If we do that, our nation will reap a return on our investment in these children far greater than we can imagine today. Casey Family Programs has compiled hundreds of studies over the years to show that this is possible.

A few days later in a meeting with UCLA’s Chancellor Gene Block, I mentioned the compelling insights of former foster youth who told their heart-wrenching stories at the Casey Family Programs’ evening, how they had overcome adversity and worked their way to their college commencements, all wanting to give back and contribute to the vision of helping more foster youth like them succeed.

To my surprise and delight, Chancellor Block handed me two papers that described (1) UCLA’s Guardian Scholars Program for college students emancipated from the foster youth system when they turned 18, and (2) the First Star UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Summer Academy, a five-week residential immersion program for 24 foster youth in the 9th grade.

Chancellor Block noted with pride that more than 250 foster youth now attend UCLA, carrying the evidence forward that they made it through the university’s rigorous, highly competitive application process. I can personally appreciate this achievement as a former community college president, having transferred many students to UCLA over the years, and hearing the joyous shouts of those who made the cut and sharing the disappointments and tears of those who didn’t.

Even more surprising, on a plane on May 25th, I sat next to Dr. Silas Abrego, Acting Vice President for Student Affairs at California State University-Fullerton at whose commencement I spoke. He told me about the Guardian Scholars Program at CSU-Fullerton which supports 140 former foster youth now earning their undergraduate and graduate degrees. He said: “What is very rewarding is to see these young people wearing their caps and gowns at graduation, knowing they have overcome many challenges to earn their degrees. The Fullerton program offers students full scholarships and a supportive learning community dedicated to their success.”

As you can see, the achievements of these foster youth and institutions of higher education that are providing them with appropriate academic and support services are impressive and inspiring.  It is also a message to our nation: we can and we must help more foster youth succeed.

In the U.S. Department of Education, we can point to innovative models in California, North Carolina, New York, Oregon, Mississippi, Colorado, Virginia and other states that are reforming the foster care system and building systemic partnerships between K-12 schools, colleges and universities, employers, community-based organizations, and the state and federal governments working together on behalf of these children and young adults.

It’s obvious to me that we can do so much more together if we share responsibility to give every foster child in America the opportunity to succeed. I’d like to look back in my lifetime and say that we brought 408,000 down to zero, because every child should have a family committed to their success in college and career. We want that for our own families and ourselves.  We need to make it happen for every child in America.  And I know we can.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.