Leadership & Governance

A Chronicle Q&A with Barack Obama

November 12, 2007

Barack Obama responded via email to questions from The Chronicle. Here is a transcript of the exchange.

Q. You have pressed many policies to increase student aid and expand college access, as have many of your Democratic challengers for the presidential nomination. Which of your ideas on these topics set you apart from the others and best define the direction in which you would take higher-education policy if elected president?

A. Serving on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, I have worked to ease the debt burden on students and to improve public education across the country.

But I also served as an advocate for students and teachers in years prior to that when I was a state legislator, where many decisions that affect public higher education are made. In Springfield, I sponsored legislation to establish tax credits for higher-education expenses and to grant in-state tuition to non-citizens, and I also supported prepaid tuition contracts.

When I was elected to the U.S. Senate, the first bill I introduced was the HOPE Act, an expansion of the Pell Grants, paid for by decreases in SAP [Special Allowance Payments] payments. This year, I worked with my colleagues on the HELP Committee to increase Pell Grants, not by increasing the deficit, but through reductions in government subsidies to banks and other lenders.

And while some of the other candidates have called for the elimination of subsidies in the federal student-loan program, I have been advocating that policy since my 2004 Senate race.

Q. What role, if any, should the federal government play in trying to rein in rising college costs?

A. The Senate proposed a compromise to hold colleges more accountable for their cost increases that I believe will work. The proposal creates a watch list of colleges whose costs are increasing faster than costs at other colleges, develops a higher-education price-comparison index, as well as a price calculator to clarify the cost of attendance for students of different income levels. Students can insist that their institutions focus more on the quality of instruction than the building of new football stadiums.

Q. You have called yourself a firm believer in affirmative action. How big a role should race play in college-admissions decisions, and why? How much should socioeconomic status factor in to those decisions, and why?

A. Diversity enriches education. As America grows more diverse, it is essential that students be exposed to diversity in all its forms and learn how to effectively communicate, collaborate, and compete with people of all backgrounds.

Some measures traditionally used to determine college admissions—such as college entrance exam scores—might not necessarily be the best predictors of college success, placing some very talented students at a disadvantage.

One of this year’s MacArthur awardees—the “genius” awards—is an innovator named Deborah Bial. She proposed a model to identify promising students from disadvantaged urban backgrounds, using an alternative set of qualities as predictors of success in college.

Candidates for this program are selected using a process based on qualities such as leadership, motivation, teamwork, and ability to effectively communicate. The students that are selected form a “posse,” and are provided with extra supports, and end up graduating form selective colleges with a very high success rate.

This shows the validity of using less-recognized skills as indicators of likely educational success. And this would probably be considered affirmative action, by specifically choosing students from less-advantaged backgrounds. But maybe it just shows that the playing ground, using traditional metrics for college admission, is unacceptably uneven.

When properly structured, affirmative action programs can open up opportunities to qualified minorities—and can do so without diminishing opportunities for white students. Given the dearth of black and Latino Ph.D. candidates in mathematics and the sciences, for example, a scholarship program for minorities interested in getting advanced degrees in these fields won’t keep white students out of such programs but can broaden the pool of talent that we need to prosper in the new economy.

We shouldn’t ignore that race continues to matter: To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in the socioeconomic disparities that we often observe turns a blind eye to both our history and our experience—and relieves us of the responsibility to make things right.

The very question suggests this is an either/or thing—either you want to increase opportunities for racial minorities or you want to increase opportunities for poor students of all races. I reject this. We can—and should—do both.

We should work to build an America where the qualified white student from rural South Carolina who worked hard to beat the odds and the qualified black student from the South Side of Chicago who did the same can attend classes together, learn from each other, teach their classmates a thing or two and vice versa, and together go off into the world prepared for a diverse workforce.

Q. On the same subject, you said in an ABC interview that your daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as people who are “pretty advantaged.” What did you mean by that? Should an applicant’s race play a role in whether he or she is admitted to a college if that person is from a middle- or upper-income background? Please explain.

A. My daughters are the children of a very talented and accomplished woman, and of a U.S. Senator. They are growing up in a neighborhood which provides the benefits of one of our nation’s great universities. They attend an excellent school. That seems pretty advantaged to me.

I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there’s nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities.

I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed. So I don’t think those concepts are mutually exclusive.

I think what we can say is that in our society race and class still intersect, that there are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class may be first-generation as opposed to fifth- or sixth-generation college attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people together [as we can] to help build this country.

Q. You have proposed eliminating the bank-based lending system and moving all college students to the direct-loan program. Some lenders and others have argued that the bank-based system creates important competitive pressures that help drive down costs to students. How do you respond to such arguments?

A. That would assume banks are able to offer lower interest rates, or lower costs to students, than direct loans. It is true a small number of borrowers may benefit. What is clear is that this system costs the taxpayer billions of dollars each year, billions which could be used for direct grant aid to students. And the debt burden on college students and the interest rates they pay have gone up exponentially. The direct-loan program has been very effective at universities in Illinois.

Q. You have said that you want to help working families adjust to the global economy. What role do you want colleges and universities to playin helping people make that transition, and how should the federal government support that role?

A. The global economy is driven by information. The most important skill is knowledge, and the ability to apply it critically to new and complex problems. Universities, colleges and community colleges all have a place in putting Americans on a path to success in the global economy, and many have established their excellence in achieving that goal.

This is not a system that needs to be overhauled, but one that needs to be nurtured, refined, and made accessible to more of our citizens. Higher education is the long-term solution to reversing the income disparities that have stretched the middle class to the breaking point.

We must increase access to higher education, through increased grant aid, and improvements in student loan system, as well as by working to slow the rate of college tuition and cost increases.

We must prepare students entering college with the skills they need to succeed. This starts with improving K-12 education, but colleges and universities can support marginal students who enter by working with schools to help them develop standards and instructional practices that make sure that high school graduates are college-ready.

Institutions should work with schools and districts in partnerships so that all sources of expertise are encouraged to provide useful input, with better communication about how to align K-12 curriculum and instruction, high school graduation requirements, and college entrance expectations.

We need better ways to help students determine whether they are on a path that leads to postsecondary success. An important part of the assisting working families [to] adjust will be played by community colleges. The federal government should provide incentives to help schools assess the types of skills and education they should offer, and how they might work with other institutions of higher education to contribute to a full postsecondary education.

Our education system also has a critical role to play when our workers lose their jobs because of trade. I believe community colleges can make Trade Adjustment Assistance job training more relevant and responsive, so that these schools reach out to employers in the community, find out what job skills are needed, and work to give laid off workers the tools they need to bounce back from a plant closure.

Q. What key accomplishments on higher-education policy would you like to highlight from your service in Congress, in the Illinois Senate, or in any other of your previous roles?

A. I would first highlight Higher Education Reauthorization, where we significantly expanded Pell Grants, which has been a high priority of mine since I entered the Senate. We also expanded loan forgiveness for those who enter public service and brought more transparency to the student loan process.

There are also some provisions that were included, based on legislative proposals I introduced. Title II overhauled the teacher preparation process, with much more emphasis on effective mentoring and induction systems, including my proposal for Teaching Residency Programs.

Good preparation programs can make novice teachers effective more rapidly, and Teaching Residency Programs do this through school-based partnerships in which prospective teachers teach alongside a mentor teacher for one year, while undertaking coursework to attain teacher certification. Graduates of the program are placed in high-needs schools and continue to receive strong mentoring and support for their first years of teaching. This is a model of effective teacher preparation that I advocated since before I was elected to the Senate.

The higher-education package also contains a provision to support Predominantly Black Institutions, an issue on which I worked with my House colleague, Danny Davis. Predominantly Black Institutions serve a growing number of African American students, most of whom are the first in their families to go to college and most of whom receive student financial aid.

Congress has long supported the essential role of similar institutions through provisions supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but newer institutions serving a needier, but deserving student populations can now also be recognized and supported.

My record in the Illinois Senate also demonstrates my work in expanding access to higher education. I co-sponsored a bill to aid low-income students with children. I co-sponsored legislation to provide need-based grants to retrain workers in IT. I co-sponsored a bill for in-state tuition for non-citizens.