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Obama speaks to college journalists about ‘Student Aid Bill of Rights’

President Barack Obama told college journalists Wednesday in a White House conference call that the government has more to do to make education affordable in the U.S., starting with the Student Aid Bill of Rights.

“Higher education remains one of the best investments you can make in your future, but also one of the best investments you can make in your country’s future,” Obama said. “It’s never been more important and we have to prioritize it.”

President Obama, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, and other White House officials held the call March 11 with college reporters. This bill was announced by President Obama during his trip to Georgia Tech March 10. He signed a presidential memorandum Tuesday regarding these goals.

This bill includes four basic rights for every student in America: have access to high-quality, affordable higher education; be able to easily find the resources they need to pay for college; be able to choose an affordable repayment plan for student loans; and receive quality customer service, reliable information and fair treatment when repaying loans. Obama asks students to sign up at to join his pledge.

Approximately 40 million students come out of college with student loan debt, which averages $28,400, according to the Project on Student Loan Debt.

“We can’t allow higher education to become a luxury,” Obama said. “It’s an economic imperative that every American family should be able to afford. Every American family should be able to say to their kids you can join that middle class or higher, as far as your talents and hard work will take you.”

Already, Obama proposed to Congress that students receive a community college education free. He also redirected bank subsidies into student aid by increasing the Pell grant maximum by $1,000 and created the American Opportunity Tax Credit. This credit is worth up to $10,000 over the course of a four-year college. Borrowers can cap their loan payments to 10 percent of their income and “pay as they earn.”

“One thing that continues to worry both of us…is the cost of attending college,” Duncan said. “We’ve worked hard and will continue working hard and will keep working hard to do more to help on the front end to keep higher education accessible and affordable and we want you to hold us accountable for that.”

With this bill, Obama asked the Department of Education to create a website by 2016 that allows students to see the balances of all of their student loans in one place. With a student complaint-feedback system, students can directly deal with their federal financial aid issues and hold banks and debt collection services to higher standards of transparency and reasonableness.

“The number of borrowers who have enrolled in the ‘Pay as You Earn’ program tripled in this past year,” said Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary of Education and former president of Occidental College. “We hope by publicizing these repayment plans, we put borrowers into plans that best suit them.”

The plans will benefit students according to their circumstance, Mitchell said.

Duncan said that Americans should not place higher education in opposition to K-12 and early childhood education.

“We have to think about this as a continuum from cradle through to career and do everything we can to give every young person a chance to have a word class education,” Duncan said. “We need political leaders across the spectrum to invest in education rather than walk away from it.”

Thus, he said Americans need to maintain funding to education.

“If we want to keep high wage, high skills jobs in our communities, in our states and in our nation, we need to have the best educated workforce in the world,” Duncan said. “Regardless of Republican or Democrat, I don’t understand why political leaders of any party would want to be cutting funding to education.”

Duncan urged students and young people in general to do their civic duty in order to help change fiscal priorities at the state level.

“I would just urge you guys, in a democracy, the best thing you can do is to vote,” he said. “If enough young people vote, this becomes a priority. If young people don’t vote, this becomes an easier thing, in tough budget times, for a governor to cut.

Mitchell said private universities will be pressured based on ratings and other universities to bring down costs.

“I think that as we talk about pulling costs down, institutions are going to need to respond to other institutions that are bringing their costs down,” Mitchell said. “We think that transparency plus a little health competition is going to influence all sectors of higher education. We look forward to helping to share with institutions, public and private, the initiatives that are leading to lower cost, higher outcomes and greater access.”

James Kvaal, the deputy director of the Domestic policy council in the White House, said during the call that the priorities Obama has set reflect his strategy of college affordability five years in the making.

Kvaal said Obama is dedicated to the importance of college degrees in helping with job stability in the middle class and in increasing the number of college graduates in the U.S. He also encourages colleges to innovate to bring costs down while helping students learn more and making college affordable.

“[W]e are confident there is an affordable option out there for every student out there with Department of Education contractors so we get them a repayment plan they can afford,” Kvaal said.

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“It is our responsibility to make sure the 40 million Americans with student loans are aware of resources to help them manage their debt. We want to do everything we can to be responsive to their needs,” Duncan said.