THE CHOICE: A Look At Pres. Barack Obama And Mitt Romney’s Plans For Higher Education (VIDEO)

It’s now time for “The Choice,” where we look at the policy proposals of Pres. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and how they affect all Americans, but especially African-Americans.

Today, it’s all about higher education, both four-year and two-year community colleges. And it’s important because our college graduation rates are worse than any other developed nation. Judith Browne Dianis and Dr. Leslie Fenwick joined Roland Martin on the set of Washington Watch to discuss the opposing plans from Romney and Pres. Obama.

MR. MARTIN:  Welcome back.

It’s now time for “The Choice,” where we look at the policy proposals of Pres. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and how they affect all Americans, but especially African-Americans.

Today, it’s all about higher education, both four-year and two-year community colleges.  And it’s important because our college graduation rates are worse than any other developed nation.  Now, there’re studies, one from Harvard and one from the National Center for Education Statistics [which] measured the percentage of students who failed to complete their four-year college degree within six years.

All four year colleges:44%

Private, for-profit colleges:78%

Private, nonprofit colleges:35%

Public colleges:45%

The percentage of students who failed to get their degree in three years at two-year community colleges was 71 percent.  Now, with college costs skyrocketing, student debt now over a trillion dollars and 53 percent of recent college graduates either unemployed or underemployed, post-high school education is certainly a mess.

So, what will the candidates do to try to fix it?

Well, Mitt Romney says he has a four-point plan:

1.  Simplify and consolidate the existing student aid programs, like Pell grants;

2.  Cut the expenditures for those programs.  Send some of savings – some of the savings to states in block grants to let states decide how to spend it;

3.  Return the student loan program back to private lenders; and

4.  Encourage the growth of for-profit colleges.

Pres. Obama proposes these plans:

1.  Increase the amount and availability of grants for tuition;

2.  Continue the tax credit for college costs;

3.  Limit student loan repayments to a percentage of a borrower’s income;

4.  Crack down on for-profit colleges; and

5.  Slow the growth of college costs by 50 percent.

Here to dig into these plans are Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project; and Do- — and Dr. Leslie Fenwick, dean of the School at – of Education at Howard University.

Folks, welcome to the show.



MR. MARTIN:  All right.  When you see these two particular plans, what really jumps out?  Pres. Barack Obama pushed through changes to the student loan program, saying we don’t need the middlemen.  Those bankers were essentially being a pass-through and, you know, reaping significant profits just by simply being there.  Mitt Romney says let’s go back to that system.  Your thoughts?

MS. BROWNE-DIANIS:  So, I think – I mean this comes down to who’s going to be the one that gives us the most opportunity – to go to college –

MR. MARTIN:  Right.

MS. BROWNE-DIANIS:  — to finish it and be able to stand on our feet afterwards.  Right?  Because Mitt Romney’s plan is “shop around.”  Those are his words.  “Shop around” for the best deal and then “borrow money from your parents.”  Pres. Obama wants to increase Pell grants, increase the maximum amount of Pell grants and be able to keep a federal role in providing opportunity.

So, I think it’s – you know, we’ve got to, like, measure up.  Do we want the guy who’s all about market and profit, or do we want the person who’s going to expand opportunity with the help of government?

DR. FENWICK:  Absolutely.  And so if you’re looking at African-Americans’ access to colleges and universities at a time when states have retracted from their role in higher education, reduced resources available to support even state institutions, and the cost of higher education thus has r- — has been raised relative to tuition – we need a plan that expands opportunity and expands access to financial resources to support higher education.

MR. MARTIN:  Now, I didn’t hear anything in Mitt Romney’s plan dealing with community colleges – two-year colleges.  Pres. Obama has been very aggressive in his first term in saying we must take advantage of those colleges, because the reality is 65 percent of the jobs in this country are really [filled] by folks who go to community colleges.

DR. FENWICK:  Yeah.  More than 70 percent of African-American students with high school diplomas who are in the 11 southeastern and southern states are in community colleges.  So, it was a targeted and important audience to address.  If you’re looking to capture African-American students who are interested in postsecondary education, community colleges are the place to go.

MS. BROWNE-DIANIS:  Whereas, Romney, you know, loves the for-profit college model.  And so for him, expanding those opportunities and also being allowed to have government money go to those for-profit universities – that’s his kind of like plan of how you get vocational training [and] you get to move people into new jobs as they open up.

MR. MARTIN:  I do want to deal with this whole issue of building a skill set.  And I’ve said this on this show, and some people think it’s – for some reason, it’s controversial.  And that is the reality is everybody is not designed to, nor should they, go to college.  Now, somebody at home is freaking out, saying, “Oh, my God.  I can’t believe he said that,” but the reality is it’s simply true.

Now, should we have a stronger – you mentioned vocational.  Should we have stronger vocational programs in this country for the folks, frankly, who shouldn’t be on the campus of Howard?  Because when they’re getting those student loans, they can’t compete.  Then they drop out.  Now they have a high d- — the university to have a higher default rate.  They – their – their debt goes up.  What kind of training should we have?

Bob Johnson’s been on this show.  His – his ex-wife Sheila Johnson also, both major business folks.  They say we have a lack of skill set[s] in this country, and we need to pay attention to that as well.

Your thoughts?

DR. FENWICK:  Look.  You know, I’m going to push back a little bit on that, Roland.  Only about 23 to 26 percent of the American population goes to college and gets a bachelor’s degree or any postsecondary degree, so we know that our economy is not built on college graduates.  Our economy is built on people who don’t have those credentials, and we still have a manufacturing base – or, should have a manufacturing base in this country.

MR. MARTIN:  My point is when we talk about “higher education,” I think we have to expand our notion of higher education to say four-year institutions, two-year institutions; but also programs that, frankly, are postsecondary – that [are] still where you’re building skill set[s] –


MR. MARTIN:  — where people can compete, as opposed to having low-wage jobs.

MS. BROWNE-DIANIS:  Right.  Just like, I mean, the green jobs movement – right?  We need people that can fill these new jobs.  I mean – and they have – but we have to line them up with the kind of expanding employment opportunities –

MR. MARTIN:  Right.

MS. BROWNE-DIANIS:  — right?  And part of the problem, I think, with the for-profit industry is that it’s not necessarily aligned and that there really hasn’t been a shown track record of moving people into jobs.  So, people are coming out – just like college – coming out with no jobs, thinking they’re guaranteed a job ’cause they went into this particular program, but not being able to complete and not being able to get a job.  And –


MS. BROWNE-DIANIS:  — so we have to have alignment.

MR. MARTIN:  — is there really anything a – a president can actually do to affect tuition?  Because the reality is if you’re dealing with a state university, that’s really not a president’s call.

DR. FENWICK:  I think that a president can do something, which is use the bully pulpit to encourage governors to invest in higher education in their state[s].  We began, in 1985, to see a disinvestment from higher education by state governments, and so any encouragement to governors to put money into state institutions would – would help.

MR. MARTIN:  Okay.  Judith and Leslie, I appreciate it.  Thanks a bunch.

MS. BROWNE-DIANIS:  Thank you.

DR. FENWICK:  Thank you.

MR. MARTIN:  All right.

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