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Want development, investment in education, administration official says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 19, 2012 - U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller told a theater full at Harris-Stowe University today that college access and affordability is key to development. He said the administration has been trying several methods to help African-American students succeed.

Mayor Francis Slay started the discussion, saying that St. Louis had seen significant improvements in having college grads live in St. Louis but more educational success is needed.

“The problems are real, but most importantly, the solutions are available,” said Slay. “The solutions are right here in St. Louis - they’re here in the quality and choice of our public schools, they’re here in colleges and universities, they’re here in businesses that provide access to internships and that work with our education sector and they are here in our college pipeline programs.”

Miller echoed the mayor and President Obama, saying, “There is no better policy for economic development than investment in education.”

He spoke of the state of the job market and how the employment rate in the U.S. directly correlates with people’s level of education. Miller stressed that to stay competitive at an international level, the U.S. cannot afford to under-perform other countries when it comes to education.

“As a nation, we need to lead the world in the percentage of adults that have some kind of college degree,” said Miller.

The speech put specific emphasis on the issue of providing a better education for African-American students. According to Miller, only 30 percent of minorities, age 25-34, have an associate degree, and only 18 percent of African Americans in that same age group have a bachelor’s degree.

The question, he said, is what to do to improve these statistics. Miller said the changes under the Obama administration included a 50 percent increase in Pell Grant recipients since 2009, getting more students the resources to attend college.

He also said the fact that applications for federal student aid are free and that they have been increasingly promoted have led to an increase in applications from low-income families.

Finally, the administration has taken steps to make student loans easier to manage. For example, income-based repayment for student loans takes into account a person’s income and then caps loan payments so no one has to pay more than he or she can afford. Another option is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which allows college loans to be forgiven if a person remains working in a public service job -- jobs such as firefighters and teachers.

According to Miller, the department is also trying to make colleges more transparent in the information they provide, making it easier for students to evaluate all options when it comes to higher education.

Miller explained that these programs have made progress in increasing the number of minority students pursuing higher education, but he also made the point that we must continue to work to improve our education system -- as students, educators, policy-makers and as a community as a whole.

Said Miller, “It’s imperative that we move with the pace, the scale and the urgency of the crisis today to reach the full potential of this country.”