- - Monday, September 30, 2013

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday the student loan crisis has grown so large it poses a “threat to the American dream.”

Mr. Duncan, talking up the Obama administration’s plan to create a system that ranks American colleges according to their value for the educational dollar, said students and their parents need help navigating the higher education market.

“One of the real barriers right now is college cost,” said Mr. Duncan. “Everywhere I go hardworking parents are saying college costs are just crushing them.”

In a speech at the National Press Club, Mr. Duncan said the administration’s new ranking system — set to debut late next year — will help keep costs down, increase access and spur investment in higher education.

“We have the best system of higher education in the world but it’s a very inefficient marketplace,” Mr. Duncan said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1981 and 2011, total annual tuition and room and board rates for full-time undergraduate students increased from $3,101 to $18,497 per year.

Mr. Duncan said the new ranking system would award more federal funding to colleges based on how the schools perform on measures of academic quality, affordability and graduation rates. Critics say the Obama initiative is another excuse for the federal government to control higher education.

Mr. Duncan defended the reform efforts Monday.

“The best ladder of all to the middle class is a high-quality education,” he said.

Mr. Duncan also defended Common Core, an effort to create national curriculum standards the Obama administration is backing as part of its Race to the Top education reform. The effort has come under fire in recent weeks from critics on both the right and left who see the reforms as a federal power grab.

“The fear of federal takeover is just the height of silliness,” he said. “These are standards that were designed by states, adopted voluntarily by states, and that are being implemented by states.”

Mr. Duncan said he addresses the issue of standardization as a parent. He blamed the growing controversy over the Common Core standards on “political silliness” and said “there should be nothing political about wanting more for our children.”

Mr. Duncan said the effort to standardize curriculum standards across the nation is already paying off in states such as Tennessee by exposing deficiencies that had been glossed over.

“That’s tough medicine, but guess what, it’s the truth. And when we hide from the truth and cover things up with low standards, who are we helping other than politicians? We’re hurting kids, we’re hurting education, we’re hurting our country,” Mr. Duncan said.

He said the vast majority of states are already doing the hard work of implementing higher standards.

Asked if the Common Core standards pose a risk of holding gifted students back, Mr. Duncan said, “Absolutely not. Higher standards do nothing to hold students back. It actually raises the ceiling.

“We love this idea of holding states accountable to a high bar, but also giving them a chance to be flexible and creative in how they hit that high bar.”

With the federal government on the eve of a shutdown thanks to a partisan budget stalemate in Congress, the secretary of education also took aim at tea party Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“If Congress can’t work together on behalf of students, what can they do?” he said.

“They are creating stress and uncertainty at a time when our schools need stability and investment,” he said.

“Outside the [Washington] bubble, people aren’t arguing over 140 characters or less,” he said. “In the real world, parents just want their kids to go to great schools,” whether it’s a public school, charter school or something else.

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