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Secretary of Education talks challenges in paying for college

As part of a national movement regarding college affordability, President Barack Obama has set a goal for higher education to be more financially accessible. The goal is that, in 10 years, the U.S. will have the world’s most college graduates, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a phone conference with college journalists on Monday.

“[Obama] wants America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020,” Duncan said. “One generation ago, we led the world, but since then, we’ve dropped from first to ninth. We have to, again, lead the world.”

Duncan said this drop is in large part due to the inability of many students and their parents to afford college.

The conversation was led by Jason Rzepka, MTV Vice President of Public Affairs and also featured CollegeBoard.com president Gaston Caperton. It was held to allow college students in the media to ask financial questions and understand what is being done by the government in order to help fight rising college costs.

Caperton said that America is going through a “readjustment period,” noting that over the last generation, citizens have lived past their resources exponentially due to under-saving and over-spending.

He said the government is also guilty of these financial mistakes.

However, as of this past year, the Department of Education, in lieu of President Obama’s addition to the Pell Grant budget, was able to provide 2.4 million low-income students with an increase in grants, as well as increasing the average grant by $1,000.

The speakers also mentioned that this effort is expected to grow over the next seven years so that, by 2017, the maximum Pell Grant award will rise from an already elevated $5,550 to $6,000.

“A little bit of progress was made [this past year] but we know we have to go further,” Duncan said.

Another hindrance for students trying to receive financial aid for college is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, this year, in hopes that it would be easier for students to apply for financial aid, the application was altered to be significantly shorter with new wording.

Duncan also mentioned recently passed legislation concerning the way federal loans can be repaid. The concept is income-based repayment, which translates into 15 percent of the student’s post-graduation discretionary income being used toward paying off loans each year.

The rate is fixed, so if a student makes $40,000 at their first job after graduating, they are expected to pay $6,000 the first year, but in the next year if they make $50,000 they will still be expected to pay 15 percent of that amount, which would be $7,500.

Duncan said all loan debt will be erased at the end of 10 years for students who spend a decade in public service after graduation. Such jobs can be anything from a teacher to a police officer to a worker for a non-profit organization.

These graduates will still pay 15 percent of their income for the 10 years they work in public service, but all remaining debt will be forgiven afterward.

Rzepka and Caperton also explained during the phone conversation the way MTV and CollegeBoard.com have collaborated to help with the overall college affordability issue.

The two companies created a contest called “Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge.” Its purpose is to get college students involved in sharing their ideas on how the financial aid process can be made easier .

“Our hope is that we can really raise the volume of this and amplify young people’s voices in this process,” Rzepka said.

The “Get Schooled” challenge will award the winning team $10,000 and then will begin attempting to implement that team’s ideas into a process with $100,000 dedicated solely toward the effort.

The deadline for the challenge is Dec. 17. For more information, check out www.getschooled.com.

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