President Obama went back to friendly territory to give an education speech touting his administration's education victories so far, and underline his one major education goal: to get the U.S. back on the top of the world's highest college graduation rates. The administration acknowledged separately that to achieve that goal, schools will have to make sure Latinos graduate at higher rates.
The president's Monday afternoon speech at the University of Texas at Austin, where Obama visited as a presidential candidate for a rally of 20,000 back in 2007, was preceded by a press call led by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "We set a goal for America to lead the world in college completion," Duncan told reporters. "A generation ago we did lead the world. Today we happen to be 12th." He called this goal the "North Star" of his department's reform efforts.
In order to get there, about 11 million more undergrads will have to earn their degrees in the next decade. On the press call, Duncan said that raising Latino graduation rates would be central to that goal: among kids of color, Latinos are on their way to becoming the biggest racial group enrolled in the public education system today.
"Over one third of America's college students and over one half of our minority students don't earn a degree, even after six years," Obama said.
The Obama administration has successfully passed several initiatives to address some of the reasons students of color don't get through college, especially the financial burdens that often force students to drop out. His administration passed student aid reform back in March, which was indeed a win for students of color. The bill replaced $60 billion in corporate subsidies that student loan companies received every year for disbursing federal student loans, and put that money toward Pell Grants for students from low-income families and historically black colleges and other institutions that serve students of color.
Obama also touted other big achievements from his administration: streamlining the federal student loan application process--according to Duncan, financial aid applications are up 20 percent; and instituting the Income Based Repayment program that will forgive the loans of students dedicated to public service after 10 years. The wins are certainly real and worth noting. For students and college grads dealing with mountains of student loan debt, they're much needed.
"We want to make sure nobody is denied a college education, nobody is denied the chance to pursue their dreams, just because they can't afford it," Obama said to cheers. "We are a better country than that. And we need to act like we're a better country than that."
Obama also briefly touched on his controversial Race to the Top program in his speech. According to Duncan, the education reform program is about creating a "cradle-to-career" pipeline to get students on their way to college. It's a clever turn of phrase from the familiar "school-to-prison" pipeline that many progressive education activists see students of color being funneled through. But cute language will only get the White House so far in selling the program, which civil rights groups have criticized as needlessly punitive and competitive.