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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held phone conference with MTV and student journalists

MTV and Collegeboard.com held a telephone conference Monday, Oct. 4 with the U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan and student journalists from across the country. The conference announced the kick-off of the, “Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge,” an initiative to improve college affordability.

The past year has seen large cuts in education funding at the state level due to the economic crisis. Duncan challenges state governments to invest in public higher education. “It’s interesting to me, so often tax payers don’t increasing the number of jails or what we spend on prisons, but somehow every dollar spent on education gets challenged,” said Duncan.

The federal government has aided colleges such as the University of Massachusetts financially through stimulus money from the Recovery Act. However, the much needed aid will stop coming next fiscal year leaving a large funding gap for public higher education.

“Get Schooled,” has challenged students from across the country to come up with creative solutions to making college more affordable using the power of technology. Secretary Duncan pointed to the over two million students who don’t apply to financial aid available to them. MTV and collegeboard.com seeks to make it easier for students to understand and access financial aid.

The, “Get Schooled: college affordability challenge,” rewards a monetary prize of $10,000 to the individual or team who comes up with the best way to make the financial aid process simpler, using digital tools. Three finalists will be picked and the winner will be decided from a poll available on MTV.com in early 2011.

“You can’t have a great city, a great township, a great state or a great country without great public education and a great system of higher education,” said Duncan.

Duncan spoke on the importance of not only making college more accessible, but making sure that students get their degree in a timely manner to reduce costs. “We are thinking through a number of ideas to really reward those colleges and states that create a culture around college completion,” said Duncan, “We had asked as a part of the higher education bill for $2.5 billion for the , ‘College Access and Completion Fund,’ which would really incentivize that good work. That did not pass congress unfortunately, but we’re going to come back and push that hard,” continued Duncan.

Duncan wrapped up his end of the telephone conference with a call to college students to get involved in the political process to endorse the cause for reform in higher education, “With elections coming up here in November I would just encourage every young person to get out there and vote and challenge candidates about what their stance is around education reform, pre-K through 12 funding, and higher education,” said Duncan.

The remainder of the questions from the student journalists were fielded by vice president of MTV public affairs Jason Rzepka, and College Board president Gaston Caperton.

“We know how desperately the country needs those college graduates and know how the bar continues to rise,” said Rzepka referring to the increasing demand for college degrees in the economy. Jobs that may not have required a degree in the past now require one and some jobs that required degrees now require a more advanced degree.

“Our hope is that we can really raise the volume on [education reform] and amplify young people’s voices in the process, because a lot of times decisions get made apart from that,” said Rzepka.

“[The problem with college affordability] is a tough thing. This is not an easy thing. And it’s going to take sacrifice from a lot of people,” said Caperton, “I’m not talking about people paying more to go to school, but paying more taxes and rebalancing budgets that have not been balanced in awhile.”

“This is a tough time and it’s going to take a great deal of effort from all of us,” said Caperton.

 Caperton spoke on the need for educators with the help of the federal government to prepare students better for college.

“I think one of the things we cannot underemphasize is the number of students who come to college unprepared,” said Caperton.

The federal government has already taken steps to improve the quality and ease through which students receive financial aid. The Pell Grant system was restructured such that for profit loan agencies will no longer be able to offer students financial stipends. All Pell Grants will be issued directly from the government.

Bobby Hitt can be reached at rhitt@student.umass.edu.

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