“Education changed my life.”
In every community I’ve visited over the past nearly two and a half years there are always Latino college graduates who share their powerful stories of what they had to endure to get in to college and what it took for them to finish: “I was the first in my family to go to college.” “My high school counselor told me I’d never get in to college and that I should think about working with my hands.” “I had no clue how any of this worked—applying to college, scholarships, loans.” “I had to work when I was in school.” “I had to take care of my grandmother, my mom, my kids.” “I had no idea how I was going to pay for college.” But, despite all these challenges, they made it—and from that point forward their lives and the lives of their families would never be the same.
President Obama understands their journey. So does the First Lady and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and every one of us for whom a college degree meant an entry into a new world of possibilities, the American Dream. It changed our lives, forever. And it can change the country’s future as well.
The only way we’re going to win that future, the President has said, is by out-educating, out-innovating, and out-building the rest of the world. Those countries out-educating us today will out-compete us tomorrow. That’s why the President has challenged us to once again be number one in the world in the share of our population with a college degree by 2020. We used to the lead the world as recently as 2000. We’re now 16th.
Latinos play a critical role in our nation’s plan to win the future. In fact, as the President has said, the future of the United States is inextricably linked to the future of the Latino community. Today, Latinos are the largest and fastest growing minority group in the country—at more than 54 million strong and more than 16 percent of the total population—and the largest and fastest growing minority group in each part of the education system—early learning, K-12, higher education, and adult education—yet they have the lowest education attainment levels of any group. We cannot achieve the President’s 2020 “First in the World” goal without Latinos significantly increasing their education attainment levels.
To help make this a reality, the Obama Administration has accomplished a large number of education victories that have directly benefited the Latino community. At the early learning level, significant increases in Early Head Start and Head Start have created many more opportunities for Latino children who make up 36 percent of all Head Start students. This is crucial because less than half of Latino children are enrolled in any early learning program, the only group in the U.S. to have participation levels below 50 percent.
At the K-12 level, where Latinos account for slightly more than 1 of every 5 students or approximately 22 percent, the Administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program is directly impacting Latino students in five of the fifteen states with the largest Hispanic populations—Florida (3rd); New York (4th); Georgia (10th); North Carolina (11th); and Massachusetts (15th). In addition, the Administration’s focus on turning around the country’s lowest performing schools means that the 2,000 high schools and their feeder schools that produce 75 percent of all Latino dropouts are receiving increased financial support—up to $6 million per school over a three-year period—to dramatically transform these schools into places where Latino students are learning at high levels and where there are high expectations of every child as they move successfully along the path to being college and career ready.
Making college more affordable continues to be a top priority for the Administration. The President clearly understands the pressures families and students face trying to pay for college. A number of key changes have made college more affordable for Latino students. First, President Obama significantly increased the amount of Pell Grants, growing the award from $4,730 in 2008 to $5,550 today. It is estimated that 150,000 additional Latino students will benefit from these changes by the end of the decade. The President fought fiercely in the most recent budget battle to maintain the $5,550 maximum level against intense Congressional pressure.
Second, the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form has made it easier for families and students to complete the document. Families now see 70 percent fewer computer screens as they fill out the form on-line and can now retrieve their tax records electronically from the Internal Revenue Service. There has been a 35 percent increase in the number of families completing the FAFSA form in the last two academic years.
Third, for decades, the federal government subsidized private banks that provided student loans. The Obama administration eliminated the subsidy to banks and now makes all loans directly to students, saving $68 billion over the next seven years. The savings help pay for new Pell Grants and other programs to boost college completion and support community colleges to meet President Obama’s 2020 college completion goal.
These are just a few of the education victories the Obama Administration has accomplished and that have impacted the Latino community directly. The most recent data shows that due to these changes, particularly increased Pell grants, there was a substantial 24 percent growth in Latino college enrollment from 2009 to 2010, resulting in Latinos now being the largest minority group in the higher education universe.
“Education changed my life.” We have to make sure even more of our Latino sons and daughters get a chance to declare these words. The fate of our country depends upon it.
Juan Sepúlveda is the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics