Is Higher Education Getting A Higher Profile?

The stimulus plan and the proposed budget call for more money to aid families with college tuition. But will it be enough money to make a difference?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. Coming up, so you spent tens of thousands of dollars on your Ph.D. and now, you're looking for a job. Good luck with that. We hear from one postdoc in New York later in the program.

BRAND: First, President Obama started his day with a speech on education before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

(Soundbite of speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: In a 21st century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there's an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do but what you know. Education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success. It's a prerequisite for success. That's why workers without a four-year degree have borne the brunt of recent layoffs.

BRAND: President Obama outlined a long list of education priorities he says he'll champion. Education already occupies a high space among White House priorities. NPR's Larry Abramson joins us now to discuss what the president said and what he plans to do. And Larry, any new initiatives today?

LARRY ABRAMSON: Not really. Today, I think the president was drumming up support for many of the efforts that are already under way and that were announced in greater detail in the state of the union address or in stimulus plan. So for example, he reiterated his plans to expand early childhood and talked about how much money we would get back later on from having children who are ready to learn.

BRAND: And one of the more controversial aspects of what he wants to do is what's known as performance pay or merit pay for some teachers. He wants to basically give more money to teachers who teach better.

ABRAMSON: Right. And of course, this is something that has not been popular among teachers unions, so to have a Democratic president in place and actually backing that royals them a little bit, I think, because they supported this president and of course, you have to remember the federal government is not going to dictate how much individual teachers get paid. They'll hand out performance grants as they have been doing under the Bush administration - there was a teacher incentive fund under the last administration - and then some districts will use that money and they'll incorporate them into their contracts, and the teachers will probably have to agree to most of these changes. I think it's wrong to say that the teachers are just dead set against this idea. They'd accepted it in many places.

BRAND: What about charter schools, Larry? He also likes charter schools. In my understanding, that, too, is encountering small position.

ABRAMSON: Well, you know, of course, many people have concerns about charter schools. Some are traditional teachers in public schools who are concerned the charter schools are not held accountable to the same standards. There are places like, I've just went to New Orleans where they're concerned that basically charter schools get the cream of the crop, the kids who they want to pick and then kids who have more trouble learning or possibly had special ed issues to deal with, they get shoved on the traditional public schools. But I think that President Obama now wants people to get over this concern about charter schools and say that many of them are now sort of beacons of innovation and that's the good things about charter schools ought to be able to spread to other schools. And so there's money in the budget that he's proposing to help foster more charter schools, and I think it's not going to be a bad word at all in this Democratic administration.

BRAND: Let's talk a little bit about higher education, and he says he wants more graduating not only from high school but from college. So how is he going to do that financially?

ABRAMSON: Well, he has - he and the Democratic Congress have dramatically raised the amount of Pell grants. These are the grants that go to the lowest income students, and they're going to be, you know, over $1,000 higher in a very short period of time. That's a really big deal. A lot of people will tell you at financial aid offices that sometimes, just a difference of a few hundred dollars will make a difference between the student deciding yes, I'm going to go or no, I'm just going to go back to work. And another huge deal is that he is basically going to kick the banks out of the lending business to students. A lot of federally-guaranteed loans go through private banks. And as you may remember, a lot of those banks were implicated in a lot of kickback schemes to universities. There was a lot of corruption alleged and a lot of people just felt that this is a wasteful system that just is a token free-market system, and it's really more efficient to just let the government do this, and that's what the president says he's going to do, that he's going to save $4 billion by administering these loans directly.

BRAND: NPR's Larry Abramson covers education for us. Larry, thank you.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

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