U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke with the State Press about student loans, post-college careers and collegiate athletics from his “Strong Start, Bright Future” Back-to-School Bus Tour. The tour will stop in Scottsdale, Phoenix and Yuma on Thursday.
The State Press: The word “crisis” tends to be very often attached to the topic of student loans. With the student loan debt totaling over $1 trillion, do you consider it a crisis, and how do we solve the problem moving forward?
Arne Duncan: Both the president and I worry a lot about the amount of student debt that is out there. I’m a huge fan of President (Michael) Crow at Arizona State who has done a tremendous amount to keep costs down. There are a couple different things. First of all, we have to continue to encourage universities to keep costs down and use technology and other things in creative ways, which (ASU) is doing. We have to continue to encourage universities to build cultures not just around access, but around completion. And we have to make sure that states continue to invest in higher ed and all forms of education. Far too many states disinvest in higher ed. I always say it’s about shared responsibility. We at the federal level want to continue to invest, states have to do their part and universities have to do their part. Part of what the president is challenging us to do is to try and create much more transparency so students and families can make good choices. If you want to get a good education, but you also want to get good value for your money, you have to make sure you are going to a school where you have a good chance of not just going, but graduating and completing. So there is a lot of work ahead of us, and I do worry about the amount of debt out there.
SP: You recently posted “Top Nine Things Every College Freshman Needs to Know” on buzzfeed.com. It’s been getting a little flak in the media for not mentioning the Income-Based Repayment plan option that students have after graduation. Is there a reason you didn’t mention it?
AD: Obviously IBR is at the back end, once you graduate, so I understood the flak, but (those people) sort of missed the point. Again, this was a note to freshmen. It was supposed to be a little serious, a little funny and, obviously, freshmen don’t need to worry about the IBR as much until they graduate and start to figure out how to repay their loans. But income-based repayment is something that we want, that we actively promote, and we have had about 1.6 million people take part, and we want many more to do it. That’s something you get more at the back end of college, not as an incoming 17-year-old. … I thought that Buzzfeed was pretty cool actually, I don’t know what you thought.
SP: I thought it was great too, I got a good laugh out of most of it and there was a good mix of funny and serious.
AD: Alcohol is not a food group, remember that.
SP: I will!
Let’s talk about how valuable internships are for college students. There is a fair pay campaign that is trying to steer colleges away from encouraging students to accept unpaid internships for college credit. They say students can’t pay their rent with college credit. What do you think students should do?
AD: It’s complicated, and I don’t have an easy answer on that. I think those internships give exposure, not just for college students but for high school students, to the world of work. It’s very important. In our department of education, we have many, many students who come in and do paid internships in the summer. We have some paid internships throughout the year that are great opportunities. Obviously, when you can pay students, if students need the money to pay their bills, that’s a fantastic thing. But if students want to volunteer and do community service, I think that kind of active community engagement is so important for folks in college to participate in. It was really meaningful to me when I was in school. Ideally, things are paid, but when you can volunteer, when you can help out, when you can get exposure to the world of work and to careers you might be contemplating, I think that is critically, critically important. And for me, quite frankly, through high school and through college, those were really formative experiences I had. Some were paid, many were not, but they really helped to shape who I am and what I wanted to do with my life.
SP: I teach a freshman success class here at ASU and the first week of classes, I asked my class the question, “If you were president, what would be the first thing or the one thing about the country you would change?” I was actually surprised to hear a large majority say they would change the education system because they feel like high school didn’t prepare them well enough for college and they are from all over the country. What can we do to bridge that gap?
AD: I think what you saw in that class is absolutely an accurate reflection of reality. And what we see across the country is far too many young people, and these are the people who are graduating, not dropping out obviously, but far too many high school graduates aren’t college and career ready. And what we have seen over the past year or two is 44 states voluntarily adopt higher standards for high school. These are college- and career-ready standards that are internationally benchmarked, and I think that is a huge, huge step in the right direction. And I worry tremendously. I think in far too many places around the country, educators have actually been lying to young people and their families, telling them they are ready, and they are not. And I think it is one of the most insidious things that has happened, in some places for decades. So rates and standards take real courage. You see in some places when standards go up, initially test scores go down. You get the pushback in math, but guess what? For the first time we are telling families the truth around the country. So there has been a tremendous amount of courage that it takes in raising these standards, but what you are seeing in your classes is a very accurate and troubling reflection of reality around the country.
SP: Definitely. So once we do get there and we graduate, what is the most important thing that graduates can do to sort of set themselves apart to a prospective employer?
AD: I sort of look at it a different way. To me it’s much less about competing against your peers. It’s really about finding what you are passionate about and I always say that, you know, I’ve been so lucky in my life. I have had two loves, I love playing basketball and I love education. I graduated from college in 1987 and I have only done two types of work: I played basketball and I’ve done education. I’ve just been so lucky to have done what I love and sometimes I have made a lot of money and sometimes I made very little money, and, frankly, that wasn’t too important to me. I’ve been able to do stuff that I would get up every day and do if I didn’t make a nickel. And so I think (it is about) finding your passion, finding what you would love to do regardless of compensation, finding what gets you excited and motivated to wake up every single day. And people might find that at different times. You might know that at 18. You might know that at 22. You might not know that until 32, but really challenging yourself to figure out what is your gift what is your passion what do you love to do. That to me is the most important thing and I think too many students sort of chase making a lot of money or whatever, and while there sometimes there is something to that, I am not quite sure how happy or how meaningful their lives are. So finding what uniquely motivates you, I think is the most important advice I could give to graduating seniors.
SP: That’s actually really refreshing to hear you say, because I think that sort of message is unappreciated and not often sent to students by successful adults.
Let’s shift gears a little for a minute. You talked about playing basketball earlier, and you were a collegiate athlete, so what is your take on whether or not college athletes should get paid?
AD: Yeah, these are all complicated issues … but at the end of the day, I’m not a big proponent of (collegiate) athletes being paid. I think the best thing athletes receive is a college scholarship. And I think that college scholarship is worth its weight in gold. My big concern is that far too many college athletes actually don’t graduate and don’t leave with that piece of paper. If you get that degree, it changes your life, your trajectory forever. If you play for for a couple of years and drop out or leave school without a diploma, if the school uses you and doesn’t commit to you in the classroom, that to me is absolutely the wrong set of values that the institution, the colleges, perpetuate. As you may know, I pushed very hard and the NCAA finally did it. They raised their graduation requirements, or else teams couldn’t compete in the post-season tournaments. People thought that would never happen. I thought that was a step in the right direction. So, for me, the real goal is to continue to make sure student athletes are graduating and that universities are not just serious about what they are doing on the court or the field but what they are doing in the classroom. It has to be student first and athlete second. And when those priorities are in place, again when those student athletes are getting those diplomas, those weigh more than pay in that it changes their earning potential for the next fifty years. That is just an incredible opportunity. But if universities are using their athletes and are not serious about them getting their degree then I am going to continue to push against that very, very hard.
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