iOS app Android app More

WATCH: HuffPost College And WhiteHouse.Gov: Open For Student Questions

Huffington Post   First Posted: 07/27/10 04:35 PM ET   Updated: 05/25/11 05:05 PM ET

You asked -- and we got the answers.

This morning, HuffPost College met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Director of Domestic Policy Melody Barnes for an "Open For Questions" live chat. Last week, we solicited questions from our college network and let HuffPost readers choose the best one. 150,000 votes later, we flew the winning paper's editor, Amanda Litman of North by Northwestern, to Washington, D.C. to ask her question in person -- and we also posed the others to Duncan and Barnes. A transcript of the interview follows the video.

WATCH the interview:


MR. VARGAS: Hello. Good morning, everyone. The Huffington Post is live here in the White House for a unique and special event, an exclusive interview with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and White House Director of Domestic Policy Melody Barnes, about the Obama administration's higher-education policy. And the best part is, the questions comes from college students themselves.

I'm Jose Antonio Vargas. I help oversee HuffPost College, an extensive network of college newspaper sites across America. HuffPost College sent -- asked our video -- for our college networks to send video questions to both Secretary Duncan and Ms. Barnes. And joining me here this morning is actually the editor of the college site whose video got the most number of votes.

MS. LITMAN: Hi. I'm Amanda Litman, a sophomore American studies major at Northwestern University. I'm editor-in-chief of North by Northwestern, which is part of the Huffington Post college network. Within 36 hours, the top 13 video questions got nearly 150,000 votes and almost 5,000 comments.

Our first question today is a video that got me here this morning. It's from Julia Haskins (sp), a Northwestern freshman who feels her D.C. high school didn't do enough to encourage minority achievements.

Q My public high school in Washington, D.C., stressed minority achievement, but a lot of minority students weren't encouraged to apply to top-tier universities. I understand the value of affirmative action to achieving that goal, but the real affirmative action would be restoring commitment to minority education before college, showing minority students like me that we can achieve.

How does the White House plan to encourage minority students in high school to pursue higher education?

MS. BARNES: That is a great question. And first of all, Jose and Amanda, I want to welcome you to the White House. Amanda, my law school roommate is actually a Northwestern graduate, so I've heard lots about Northwestern.

MS. LITMAN: (Inaudible.)

MS. BARNES: Exactly.

I think that is a terrific question. And the way that the administration wants to encourage minority students, indeed all students, to go on to college is first of all by requiring that we engage in a race to the top.

And I think that philosophy, that idea, stands behind all of our policies. It means that we want every student, all teachers, all parents to engage, to make sure that every student has an excellent education and is moving forward.

One of the ways that we're doing that is by encouraging college and career ready standards. We want to make sure that every student in every school is prepared to go on to college and go to a career.

And specifically and I remember, it's been a long time since I've been in high school and in college. But I remember taking Advanced Placement classes. And that allowed me to go from my high school and go on to college feeling much more prepared and in fact having college credits.

That's something that we're including in our elementary and secondary education blueprint, the ability for students to get dual credit, to take Advanced Placement classes, so that they feel prepared and that they're already looking forward -- looking forward to college.

Arne, I don't know if there's anything you want to add to that.

SEC. DUNCAN: Sounds great.

MS. BARNES: (Laughs.)

MR. VARGAS: The second question is from Mary Warrick (sp), who's actually a first-year graphic design major at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. And she will graduate with $15,000 in debt.

Q Hi. My name is Mary Warrick (sp). I'm from Gainesville, Florida. I'm a first-year graphic design student at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

And my question is, because the bill, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, takes effect in 2014, I would like to know how it will apply to the students who are in school today or have already graduated before the bill becomes law?

SEC. DUNCAN: There are actually huge benefits for students who are in school today or graduating.

And we're so proud of what the president accomplished and the courage he showed and Congress in passing this bill. But effective today, if you graduate, your loan repayments are going to be significantly reduced from where they were in the past, down to 15 percent of your income. And so folks that want to go into the public sector, who want to do things to help the community, will have that opportunity.

One of the things I'm most excited about -- and this is the law now, this is the law today -- is something called income-based repayment, IBR, which is what we talked about. But if you go into the public service, if you become a teacher, if you become -- if you graduate from law school and want to go set up a legal-aid clinic, if you graduate from medical school and want to go work in impoverished communities, enter the military, enter the government -- want to come help, work with Melody someday -- after 10 years of public service, any debt you have will be erased, will be gone.

And historically, there was phenomenal talent who wanted to come in the public sector, who wanted to help out -- and obviously, I'm really biased towards teaching; we need the next generation of teachers to step up -- but they simply couldn't do it. Their debt load was way too high -- 60 (thousand dollars), 80 (thousand dollars), $100,000 in debt. This is a game-changer. And we want that next generation of smart, talented, committed folks with a passion for the community to come and work with us, and that opportunity is going to be there in a way that it never has been before.

MS. LITMAN: Good. The next question comes from Michael Brophy and Allison Ehrenreich, who are both sophomores at Colby College in Maine. They're both paying full tuition, which means by the time they graduate they will have paid more than $200,000 each in tuition.

Q The actual price of a college education today can be over $200,000. This is a price we believe no one should have to pay.

Q Even if a family does not require financial assistance, it is still a huge burden on their income, especially if they have more than one child who aspires to go to college.

Q While we recognize the ways in which staff will help students finance a college education, we believe that the root of the problem lies in the very expensive and ever-increasing cost of higher education in the United States. Q What can the government do to tax or regulate the actual price ticket of a college education in America?

My name is Allison Ehrenreich, and I'm a sophomore at Colby College from New York.

Q My name is Michael Brophy, and I'm a sophomore at Colby College from San Francisco.

MS. BARNES: Great. Well, thanks to Allison and to Michael for that terrific question. And this is an issue we've all been hearing about for many, many years. And in fact, it's an issue that the president addressed in the State of the Union when he talked about the many different ways that the federal government was going to be of assistance -- through Pell grants, for example -- and making lending easier in filling out that financial aid application. I'm sure both of you can sympathize with that --

Q Yeah. Definitely.

MS. BARNES: -- making that easier. At the same time, he also said that colleges have to do their part, and asked colleges to engage with us and think about ways -- creative ways that they can drive down their cost.

At the same time, in -- for students who may not have a Pell grant or use some other kind of financial aid, we have, since we've been in office, 15 -- and entered 15 months ago, tripled the size of the tax credit that families can get. So now, over the course of a four-year period, a family, through the American opportunity tax credit, can get a $10,000 boost to help send their students to college.

MS. LITMAN: Great.

MR. VARGAS: This question comes from the members of the WU/FUSED at Washington University in St. Louis. It's a new group at a school actually aimed at promoting social-economic diversity on campus. It's a really interesting question.

Q This year at Washington we created a program called WU/FUSED. Our mission is to improve socio-economic diversity on campus.

Q We conducted a school-wide survey and found that socio- economic diversity on campus was lacking. Q Elite universities are getting harder and harder to get into.

Q Especially for students who come from modest backgrounds.

(In unison.) So we'd like to know!

Q Does your administration have any plans to promote class- based affirmative action?

SEC. DUNCAN: It's a great question.

I think it's so important that all of us -- not just in college, but ideally in high school and middle school and elementary school -- have a chance to go to school with students who don't look like us, who come from different backgrounds, race, class, socioeconomic status, whatever it might be. And those informal learnings I think are hugely, hugely important that are very tough to teach in a classroom setting, but you learn in the hallways and the playgrounds and the dormitories.

And I think the best thing we can do to make sure we have a socioeconomically diverse student body is to make college more affordable. And that's why these huge increases in Pell grants I think are so important.

With this SAFRA bill, there's an additional $36 billion in Pell grants -- you know, huge investments over the next 10 years, so that what -- for the first time now in our country, we can look anyone in the eye and say, regardless of how things are at home or the neighborhood or if mom or dad's losing their job or has a pay cut, if you work hard, you're going to have an opportunity to go to college.

And there's the back end, which I talked about earlier: Even if you take out some loans, if you go into public service those loans are going to be forgiven. And even if you don't go into public service, those loans -- repayments will be indexed, will be capped, at 15 percent of your income, and then at 10 percent of your income once you get to 2014.

So by putting a huge influx -- it's the biggest investment to make higher education more accessible and affordable since the GI Bill -- I think that's the best way to increase diversity and make sure that every student from every different background, first-generation, English language learner, whatever it might be -- will have the opportunity to go to college.

MS. LITMAN: The next question is from College of New Jersey student Matt Hope (sp). (Pause.) (Off mike) -- Sarah Burdick (sp), who also goes to the College of New Jersey.

Q Hi. My name is Jessica Magdalier (sp), a student at the College of New Jersey. And my friend Thomas Jefferson and I would like to know, since the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the recognition of same-sex unions on the federal level, even in states where such unions are legal, under the Obama administration's new education guidelines, are LGBT parents of college students able to sign off on loans if their relationship is not recognized by the federal government?

MS. BARNES: Great. That's a wonderful question. And the response is that, as long as the person is your legal guardian, they can sign your promissory note or your loan. That's the only criteria that matters.

MR. VARGAS: That's the only criteria that matters.

MS. BARNES: Yeah, if the person is your legal guardian or legally recognized as your parent.

MR. VARGAS: Great.

This question comes from Lisia Dala (sp), a sophomore at Northwestern. Even though she's Canadian, she's lived in the U.S. for 14 years.

Hold on; we'll find the question. Skipped us.

MS. LITMAN: Here we go.

MR. VARGAS: Here we go.

Q My family moved from Canada to Texas when I was 6 years old, and I studied from first grade through high school there. My application for permanent residency has been pending for years, so I'm considered an international student and don't qualify for federal financial aid, even though my parents pay taxes. When will the government offer financial aid to immigrant students like myself who were raised in the United States but have been unable to get permanent residency or citizenship?

SEC. DUNCAN: That's a huge issue. And it's one that first candidate Obama and now President Obama has been absolutely passionate about. I ran the Chicago Public Schools; Senator Durbin and Senator Obama were big supporters of the DREAM Act and trying to push to make sure that folks have a chance to pursue the American dream.

And it breaks my heart when we have young people around the country who have worked hard, who have done the right thing, who have, you know, actively engaged in school, been committed, gotten great grades, and then all of a sudden they're finding themselves having to pay out-of-state tuition for an in-state school. Doesn't make sense.

And so as we think about comprehensive immigration reform, one thing that's very interesting to me is how we push to try and get DREAM Act legislation as a part of that. It's the right thing to do for individuals. It's the right thing to do for families. It's the right thing to do for the country.

If we want all of our young people to grow up and be productive citizens and be players in our economy, we have to give them the chance to go to college.

MS. LITMAN: Great.

This question is from College of New Jersey student Matt Hoke (sp).

Q My name is Matt Hoke (sp). I'm a student at the College of New Jersey, which recently lost millions in state funding and therefore also in faculty pay, services. And we're facing tuition hikes too.

This is a chart depicting the bailout money and how much it could have gone to social services. Given that we have been spending billions on financial bailouts and we are escalating the war in Afghanistan, what does this say about our national priorities, when public-school teachers are being laid off left and right?

MS. BARNES: Well, the president has made it very, very clear that education is one of his top priorities. In fact when he talks about the priorities for the country, he says that it's important, if we're going to be a competitive country, for us to educate our youth and make sure that everyone is college and career ready.

And that's why we have so heavily invested in education. One of the first ways that we did that was actually when we passed the recovery act last January or February. Overall we saved or created about 300,000 teacher jobs, jobs in education. In fact, we saved about 15,000 jobs in the state of New Jersey alone.

We are continuing that work. There's still money that's going to be going out to the state over the coming months. And we've also heavily invested in education.

You can look at the president's most recent budget, his budget for FY 2011, and see that where other -- we made cuts in other places to try and be fiscally conservative or fiscally smart. The Department of Education actually received an increase, because we believe it's so important to advance reform, to try and stabilize jobs, to keep teachers in classrooms and make sure that every student has a complete and competitive education.

MR. VARGAS: This next question that's going to come for us is actually from Matt Sirkowski, who's a sophomore at Towson University, Maryland, who's paying 80 percent of his college education through student loans. (Pause.) Having a bit of a technical issue here. One second. (Pause.)

MS. LITMAN: (Off mike.)

MR. VARGAS: I know. They did a really good job making sure that they come from a really personal story, as you'll see with Matt, right here.

Q Hey. My name is Matt Sirkowski, and I'm a 19-year-old sophomore at Towson University. I come from a middle-class family, and do receive some support from my parents in paying for college. However, I am paying for about 80 percent of my tuition, fees, books, et cetera, through student loans. I can see other students in my situation who are struggling as their loans continue to build up and their financial aid continues to decline.

My question to you is, what do you plan for the students, who are building up so much student debt that continuing an education seems to be costing them more than they will gain?

SEC. DUNCAN: It's a great question. I appreciate Matt's hard work. And his wallet was looking a little bit thin there, so -- (laughter) -- I feel bad. I remember those feelings well, let me tell you, in college, when you're struggling to find a few dollars to buy a pizza once in a while.

And again, when we talked about historic increases in Pell grants -- $36 billion -- those are obviously not loans; those are grants, and just an unbelievable breakthrough. And all of that funding going forward was done without going back to taxpayers for a dime; simply by stopping subsidizing banks.

In terms of repaying loans that he currently has: again, capping loan repayments at 15 percent of income, so that those loan repayments are not unduly harsh or burdensome going forward.

And then finally, this income-based repayment -- I keep coming back to it, because I think it's so important. If Matt or other folks choose to go into the public sector, after 10 years of service, any debt remaining, all of it will be erased, will be forgiven. And so we want that next generation of folks to think about this call to service, to think about serving their communities. And it's a great way to help out. And financial impediments that have been there for decades are literally gone. That's the law today.

MS. BARNES: And I think one thing that's so important with Pell grants -- since we've been in office, you know, Secretary Duncan and the president have been working together to increase the Pell grant award by about $800. That's before this -- even this most recent law was signed into law about two weeks ago. And because of that new law, we're going to make sure that Pell grants keep pace with inflation and the cost of going to college, so they'll be realistic and they'll really be able to help students and help them take care of a significant portion of their college expenses.

MS. LITMAN: Great. The next question is from --

MR. : (Inaudible.)

MR. VARGAS: We'll find the question.

MS. LITMAN: Hold on just a minute.

MR. VARGAS: One second.

MS. LITMAN: Sorry for the technical problem.

SEC. DUNCAN (?): That's all right.

MS. BARNES (?): (Off mike) -- great. (Laughs.)

MS. LITMAN: Do you mind if I ask a personal question?

SEC. DUNCAN (?): Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead.

MS. BARNES: (Laughs.)

MS. LITMAN: Earlier you answered the question about cost-based affirmative action and you talked about making college more affordable, but you didn't really talk about admissions. And I think that's one of the big problems for students -- is a minority student from a wealthy suburb has the same opportunities as a white student, but the same isn't true for poorer communities. So can you talk at all about admission standards and how you feel about it?

SEC. DUNCAN: Yeah, I think every university that I know of wants to have a more diverse student body, and folks are working really hard at that. I would actually argue that we have to do a lot -- and Melody touched on this earlier -- we have to do a lot more to make sure that more minority students are college and career ready.

MS. BARNES (?): Yes.

SEC. DUNCAN: And then in far too many places standards have been dummied down, we've had low expectations, we've lied to students and told them they're doing okay and they're not.

And so when we talk about colleges improving standards, a high bar for everybody, when we talk about setting the highest of expectations, when we talk about making sure we have the hardest- working, the most committed teachers and principals in those historically underserved communities, there's this huge pool of talent out there that just hasn't had those opportunities.

And we talk so much about the achievement gap; I always -- I much prefer to talk about what I call the opportunity gap. And I'm convinced, if we can close the achievement gap and do some things in very, very different ways than we have in the past, we can exponentially increase the number of young African-American, Latino students going into higher education. But we have to make sure that that pipeline isn't broken. Our dropout rate in this country is unacceptably high. Those students who do graduate from high school, far too many aren't truly college-ready. They have to take remedial classes. They're not prepared to make that next step.

And so I don't blame -- you know, universities, I think, want a diverse student body. They're working hard to do it. I think we have to dramatically increase that talent pool. It's out there. In this K-to-12 reform that we're pushing, if we can fundamentally break through in the ways I think we will, I think going forward you'll see many, many more students of color having the chance not just to go to college but to be successful and graduate, and do it from some of the nation's most prestigious universities.

MS. LITMAN: So it's not about admissions standards; it's about making high schools better --

SEC. DUNCAN: Admissions standards are a piece of it --

MS. LITMAN: Yeah.

SEC. DUNCAN: -- but I think we're fighting for a tiny slice of the pie. There are only -- today, there are not enough highly qualified African-American and Latino students to go to the Northwesterns of the world. I want to expand that pool dramatically. Those great students are out there; we have to give them better opportunities.

MS. BARNES: And even starting -- there's so much work to be done K through 12, but even starting earlier than that. And that's something that Secretary Duncan, Secretary Sebelius, the president, the Domestic Policy Council are working very hard on, looking at early learning.

You know, from the moment a child is born, we have to make sure that they are prepared to go to kindergarten ready to learn, able to read, so that then they're prepared for that great K-through-12 experience. So we've got to bring up the quality and the standards. That's something that we were working towards in the bill that included higher education. We didn't get that done there, but we're looking for other ways to get that done.

MR. VARGAS: I mean, so, clearly it's a comprehensive strategy.

I mean, I must really thank you guys and commend you for sitting down. You know, this is something that we're hoping that we can continue to do, having kind of a direct interaction between college students and, of course, the highest, you know, Cabinet members in the administration. So, hopefully we can do this again sometime.

Thank you so much for having us.

MS. BARNES: We'd love it.

SEC. DUNCAN: We look forward to it. This is why we come to work every day. There are great, great students around the country. This is our motivation. So thanks for the opportunity. The questions, as Melody said, were just phenomenal.

MR. VARGAS: Great. Thanks.

FOLLOW HUFFPOST COLLEGE