U.S. Under Secretary of Education Talks College Affordability at UMass Boston

October 09, 2012

Office of Communications


President Barack Obama has set the goal of America achieving the highest number of graduates in the world, and keeping higher education affordable is key to that happening, U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter told a crowd of more than 100 students, faculty and staff at the Campus Center last week.

Under Secretary Kanter, a guest on this week’s Commonwealth Journal show on WUMB 91.9FM, visited UMass Boston to discuss college affordability with Chancellor J. Keith Motley and UMass President Robert Caret as part of a national educational tour.

“[President Obama] wants our country to have best and most competitive workforce in the world,” Kanter said.

Kanter, who grew up in Massachusetts and attended Brandeis and Harvard universities, explained how by 2018, over 60 percent of jobs will require some post-secondary education, As of last year, the United States was only 14th in the world for adults ages 25-34 with post-secondary education. 

To try to reverse that trend, Kanter said, within a month of taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama set the goal of America achieving the highest graduate rates in the world, including 10 million more graduates by 2020, and having every American complete one year of higher education or advanced training.

In order to do so, however, college needs to be affordable, but it has steadily become more and more expensive, she said. Nationally, the average student graduates with $25,000 in debt, and since 1995, the cost of attending a public, four-year college has risen 18 percent. 

“Last year alone, Massachusetts cut 5.3 percent [in funding],” Kanter said, adding that such cuts have shifted the burden to students and families.

President Caret agreed, noting that when he began in higher education, Massachusetts paid 80 percent of the cost of state schools, but today it pays 43 percent. He said that he has proposed a 50/50 solution, with the state and the university each paying half. “Let’s get this back on track,” he said.

One way to reduce the cost of education, Kanter said, is to reduce the amount of time it takes for students to graduate. According to Caret, if every student graduated one semester earlier, the state would save $200-300 million. He suggested using summer and online learning, as well as programs that allow high school students to earn college credit.

Chancellor Motley pointed out that UMass Boston Student Trustee Alexis Marvel is on track to graduate with a four-year degree in just two years. “Ideas on how to do this will come from students,” he said.

While Massachusetts has the highest graduate rates in the country, nationally only 47 percent of American adults are able read and write at a high school level and only half of college students arrive prepared, Kanter said, creating a “huge problem” and requiring colleges to spend time and money bringing students up to speed. 

“The remedial issue is a monster. Most students can come up to speed within one or two semesters, meaning they are all capable but haven’t learned,” Caret said.

To avoid wasting money at schools with poor track records, Kanter said it is important for students and their families to take responsibility for the schools that they choose to attend, which is why the Obama administration is implementing College Scorecards and Financial Aid Shopping Sheets that breakdown information.

In her first two years as undersecretary, Kanter oversaw the successful implementation of the Direct Student Loan program that resulted in a 50 percent increase in college enrollment. She said the administration has also worked to simplify the FAFSA, continue low interest rates, expand tax credits for families, and double the number of work-study jobs. They are creating income-based repayment loans that will allow students to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly income, as well as loans that will allow people who work in public service to have portions of their debt forgiven. They developed Race to the Top, a $1 billion competition to drive college reform at state levels with the goal of increased affordability, quality, and productivity.

“We need to create a sustainable financial structure for public higher education,” Kanter said.

After speaking from the audience about her own experience going from a community college in San Jose to the successful completion of a four-year degree from UMass Boston, Shauna Manning said that as an administrative assistant in the College of Liberal Arts she sees students who are only a semester away from graduation but cannot afford to finish.

“Educating our citizens makes a difference not just economically but in our communities and in our homes,” she said.