- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

President Obama said Friday that he wants to make it easier for those who are out of work to go to college, as new statistics showed the unemployment rate rose to 8.9 percent in April, its highest mark in 25 years.

“The idea here is to fundamentally change our approach to unemployment in this country, so that its no longer just a time to look for a new job, but it’s also a time to prepare yourself for a better job,” Mr. Obama said, during a short speech to reporters in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Mr. Obama’s plan revolves around making Pell Grants of up to $5,350 available to more unemployed workers by encouraging universities to expand eligibility for the aid and urging state governments to drop barriers to receiving the grants.

“The Department of Education will send colleges legal guidance encouraging them to adjust financial aid packages upward for unemployed workers and making clear that colleges will not face audits for doing so in appropriate circumstances,” the White House said.

Pell Grants generally are used to help students attend community colleges, which Mr. Obama called underappreciated assets. He said he has asked Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and herself a community college professor, to raise awareness about the initiative.

The White House has also designed a Web site — opportunity.gov — to help Americans apply for federal aid.

“With jobs hard to find, it may be a good time to consider going back to school,” the Web site says.

Mr. Obama appeared before reporters with a nurse from Maine who was able to receive training for her new career after losing her job, only because Maine law does not prohibit someone from receiving job training or higher education aid while also receiving unemployment benefits.

But not all states allow those who have lost their job to receive both types of aid at the same time.

“That doesn’t make much sense for our economy or our country. So we’re going to change it,” Mr. Obama said.

Funding for Pell Grants is set by Congress each year and is based on the number of applications received for the upcoming school year. Any differences between what is appropriated and what is required is made up in the next year’s budget.

Mr. Obama’s budget request for the 2010 fiscal year is $28 billion.

The president also promised a significant change to secondary education and work-force training in the near future.

“In the weeks to come, I will lay out a fundamental rethinking of our job training, vocational education, and community college programs,” he said. “It’s time to move beyond the idea that we need several different programs to address several different problems. We need one comprehensive policy that addresses our comprehensive challenges.”

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