Obama’s higher education plan: One step in a long path toward equity in access

In an op-ed submitted to Student Life and authored to college campuses across the nation (http://www.studlife.com/forum/2010/09/02/supporting-our-students-strengthening-our-country-an-op-ed-submission-from-president-barack-obama/), President Barack Obama identifies national problems caused by the cost of higher education and outlines the steps his administration is taking to solve them. Though American higher education is the best in the world, a lack of ability to afford it has left many without access.

Obama’s strategies for this are threefold: making it easier to obtain student loans and college tax credits, expanding the role of community colleges to fill the skill-set needs of local businesses in growing sectors of the economy, and making sure that more enrolled students complete college by giving money to something he calls a “College Access and Completion Fund.”

Though we commend President Obama for taking strides to make a college education affordable to all, we wonder whether the federal government really has the power to remedy the inequities of our own (exclusive and private) higher education. On our campus, a program called U/FUSED is working to enhance undergraduate socioeconomic diversity. But difficult and avoidable truths remain: Our Wash. U. education costs $50,000 a year, and the median parent income at Wash. U. is $180,000—well above the national average.

Community colleges are an alternative to institutions similar to Wash. U., and Obama proposes tying “the skills taught in [community college] classrooms to the needs of local businesses in growing sectors of the economy.” We’re particularly intrigued by this idea, and in theory it makes sense. In practice, however, we wonder what these growing sectors are, and whether a national agenda is the best way to determine and work with the needs of local businesses and community colleges. Community colleges are heavily subsidized by local governments as is, and many community colleges are over-enrolled. Managing an increased enrollment in community colleges with proper allocation of resources will prove to be no easy task.

A challenge unaddressed in the op-ed is the societal obstacles that underprivileged high school students face. We wonder whether the federal government has the power to change the culture that surrounds college admissions in this country—one in which students from expensive, exclusive private schools begin paying for SAT tutors at age 15 and in which many low-income students are never even told to fill out a FAFSA. Access to higher education begins with access to clear information.

In his address from the Oval Office on Tuesday, President Obama pointed out that economic strength is key to leadership in foreign policy. We agree; more investment in technology and innovations in research and development are needed to ensure that America stays competitive while establishing positive rapports across the globe. Yet innovation is the product of humans, often those who are the products of superior higher education. Without the human capital provided by education, the American economy will only fall further behind.

We believe that our president is on the right track, especially with proposals like the expansion of Pell Grants, student loan reform and the new health-care law that allows us to stay on our parents’ plans until we are 26. If his proposals work, they are bound to help the economy for years to come. From our classrooms and from what we read in the news, we recognize the need to move beyond the bubble-and-crash economies of recent years. We want to see a future in which the economy is driven by innovation, not consumption, and ultimately, we think that Obama is right in calling for the growth of the middle class and improved access to higher education.

We were lucky enough to have upbringings that allowed us to get into Wash. U. and afford it. We value our education immensely, and we want to put it to good use. We hope that the economy will recover such that we can, and we hope that others—from all backgrounds—will someday have access to what we have now.

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