Transcript of Press Conference Aboard Air Force One

PRESS GAGGLE
BY PRINCIPAL DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST
AND SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN
 
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Buffalo, New York
 
 
9:48 A.M. EDT
 
 
     MR. EARNEST:  Good morning, everybody.  Thank you for joining on what promises to be an exciting two-day bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania.
 
I'm joined this morning by the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who can answer your questions here at the top about the factsheet that you received from us this morning, chronicling the President’s message about lowering the costs of a college education.
 
     So why don't we start with that?  If you have questions on other topics I can stick around to answer those.
 
     SECRETARY DUNCAN:  I'll just quickly -- and then take your questions.  I'm just thrilled the President is focused on this.  I have to say, virtually everywhere I go -- to the dry cleaners, to the grocery store, every airplane I'm on -- I have hardworking, middle-class parents coming up basically pleading for help, asking for help.  And there’s a growing sense that college is for the wealthy, for rich folks, and not for hardworking people who are doing the right thing every single day.  And at a time when going to college has never been more important, and we know the huge dividends and long-term earning potential, unfortunately, it’s never been more expensive.
 
     And we have to make sure that middle-class folks, folks from struggling communities, have the chance to pursue their dreams and go on to college.  They need that security.  They need to know that's there.
 
So there’s some great things going on around the country, but we need to push very significant change.  And I'm thrilled to have this opportunity.  I'm happy to take your questions.
 
     Q    The Scorecard or the rating system, does the rating system itself need to get congressional approval, or just the portion that would then link the rating system to the federal financial aid?
 
     SECRETARY DUNCAN:  On the rating system, we're going to take some time and be really thoughtful on this.  It’s not something we're going to do overnight.  I'm going to travel the country; the President is going to be out talking to folks.  You worry about perverse incentives or doing the wrong thing, so we're going to take our time on it.
 
And I'm very interested in growth and gain, how much folks are improving.  So are graduation rates going up?  Are they keeping down costs?  Do young people have access to good jobs at the back end?  And I want to know -- there are some universities that are improving every year, and that's fantastic.  There are other places where the costs are going up far higher than the rate of inflation.
 
So you want to look at a number of different metrics.  And I just think we need much greater transparency for the public.  This is often so hard for families to sort of navigate the chance to go to college.  We have, by far, the best system of higher education in the world.  We have 7,000 institutions of higher education.  There’s a right choice for every child and every family.
 
We have to get them better information, and ultimately where you see people doing the right thing, keeping costs down, serving more Pell Grant recipients, making sure graduate rates are going up -- you want to see good actors be rewarded.  You want to see them get more resources.  You want to see more students walking in their doors.  And where you are not seeing that kind of commitment you want to challenge that status quo.
 
Q    Do you need Congress to do the first part or just the second part of it?
 
SECRETARY DUNCAN:  We need Congress to create a rating system.  Again, this is something we’re going to do in a very public, transparent way, and want to work with Congress to do this.  This should be absolutely non-political.  We should be able to work together. 
 
We want to go out and talk to college presidents and boards and faculty members and parents and students themselves so we'll get a bunch of input.  But then, ultimately, what we want to do is have resources follow good actors, and we would need Congress to work in a bipartisan way.  Some folks may say that’s hard to do.  We just had overwhelming bipartisan support for reducing student loan interest rates.  I think it’s probably the most bipartisan piece of legislation that’s passed in a long time, quite frankly.  So this is something that I’m actually very hopeful that we can continue to work together with Congress to do that.
 
Final thing quickly, people may not realize we at the federal level, we invest $150 billion each year in grants and loans for college.  All of that is based upon inputs just on access.  We want to focus more on outputs, and really are taxpayers, are families, are students getting good value for that important investment.
 
I'm sorry, yes?
 
Q    Secretary Duncan, how is ultimately linking this money to what the colleges do not punishing the students for something that they have zero control over, right?  If a student wants to go to a college that has really high costs or doesn’t rank on your system very well, and all of a sudden they find that they can’t get the aid because of something that’s out of their control -- they can’t control what the college does -- why is that not punishing the students?
 
SECRETARY DUNCAN:  We’re not saying they won’t have access to aid.  They will still have access to aid.  We’ll look at this thing going forward, but what I would love to do is create incentives.  For example, universities that are doing a great job of accepting Pell Grant recipients but then actually graduating Pell Grant recipients, that’s really hard work.  First-generation college goers -- we like to see those institutions get more money to do those kinds of things.
 
So, again, folks will still have a choice, but we want to make sure that good actors are being rewarded.  The thing that’s so interesting to me is people say we can’t just do this, this is too hard.  Right now there is tremendous innovation going on around the country -- universities doing three-year degrees; dual enrollment with high school; doing interesting things with technology.
 
SUNY -- which we're going to visit today -- Nancy Zimpher has done a fantastic job, the chancellor at that system.  What we have to do is take these best practices to scale.  And there’s no reason why we can’t do that.
 
Q    And what do you say to people, economists who say that you’re overstating the high cost of college, that, in fact, while costs have -- the sort of sticker price has risen, that aid has also increased as well, and that really costs have gone up by 1 or 2 percent a year?
 
SECRETARY DUNCAN:  Just look at the facts.  The fact is we have a trillion dollars in debt out there.  That’s too much.  The fact is the average debt has gone up to about $26,000.  That’s doubled over the past eight or 10 years.  And any of those things I think are not things that we should feel good or accept or think that's a status quo that makes sense for hardworking, middle-class families.
 
But, again, if you look at polls of the public -- this isn't me -- if you look at polls, the vast -- it’s like two-thirds of the American public think college is for the wealthy today.  There is something dramatically wrong with that picture.  Some form of higher education -- four-year universities, two-year community colleges, trade, technical vocation training -- some form of higher education training has to be the goal for every single young person in this country.
 
Again, we know the long-term economic benefits, dividends are just tremendous -- more than doubling long-term salaries.  So if you drop out of high school today, you’re basically condemned to poverty and social failure.  There are no good jobs out there. If you have a high school diploma, there’s almost nothing for you.  College has to be the goal, has to be the aspiration.
 
I think what Americans, hardworking Americans, middle-class Americans, are looking for is some sense of security -- if they work hard, if their children get good grades, that they should have that chance and not be burdened with huge debt at the back end.  I don’t think that’s asking too much.  I think that’s really fair.
 
Q    Mr. Secretary, what kind of reaction do you expect from college presidents, colleges and universities?  And what is the effect on for-profit schools?
 
MR. DUNCAN:  Well, first, I think like anything else, you'll get mixed reaction.  And I think you'll see people today, like Nancy Zimpher at SUNY -- and there are many college presidents around the country who are actually leading the way.  And the good ideas we're talking about, frankly, aren't my ideas or the President's.  These are ideas we're learning from university leaders who are actually doing these things, who are using technology in the first year, freshman year, to dramatically reduce costs and to increase pass rate.  You’re seeing people going to three-year programs and doing really creative things to drive down the cost very substantially.
 
So this good work is out there.  There are others where they will be more resistant.  And again, they can keep doing what they want; we just want a lot more transparency and we want parents and students to have access to know this university's tuition is going up 10 percent every year; this university has held tuition for the past five years and increased graduation rates.  That’s actually happening.  We think that’s really valuable information to have.
 
On for-profits, again, whether it's non-profit, for-profit, private, public, the President has challenged us to lead the world in college graduation rates.  And we just want to support good actors in every sector.  We want good actors to grow and thrive and have more students, more people walking in their doors.  Where folks are taking advantage of young people not doing a good job, that’s a challenge.
 
One other quick thing -- when I led the Chicago Public Schools, we tracked our high school graduates very closely.  It was fascinating.  We saw high school graduates with identical GPAs, identical test scores, go to different local universities  -- some had like 80 percent graduation rates; others had like 40 and 50 -- huge swings.  So very frankly, we started to steer our graduates towards certain universities who built a culture not just on access but around completion, and away from other places. There’s that kind of transparency that we think is really important.
 
Q    I want to go back to the for-profit colleges.  It seems like if you're going to tie financial aid to getting a diploma that this is sort of an end run around what you all tried to do earlier in the administration to for-profit colleges.
 
MR. DUNCAN:  That’s simply not correct.  That’s not factually correct.  And, again, where for-profits are doing a great job of getting folks who are struggling, getting them skills for the new economy -- green energy, advanced manufacturing, IT health -- where they're doing that, and people are going back into the world of work and strengthening their family, we think that’s fantastic.  We hope they grow and prosper and get many more students.
 
Where someone is providing an education that really isn't leading to real employment opportunities, where you're taking on massive debt and ending up in a worse financial situation than when you started, that's not something, again, that we should feel proud of.  It's a very poor use of taxpayer money, and it's not really fair to that individual who’s trying to climb the economic ladder.
 
     If we want to build a growing and thriving middle class, the only way to do that is to open the door to higher education, to make it more accessible, more affordable, make sure folks are graduating and have a chance to earn a good living.  That's what this is about.
 
     Q    Mr. Secretary, how much of what the President is going to outline that requires legislative approval do you hope to see incorporated in the five-year higher education reauthorization?  And how much might be on a separate legislative track?
 
     SECRETARY DUNCAN:  We'll figure that out, so we're not sure on which track.  But again, we've worked -- I hope you know everything that we’ve tried to do in education is on a non-political basis.  We're just trying to help.  Again, our North Star is leading the world in college graduation rates.
 
And one generation ago, the United States led the world in college graduation rates; today, we're like 12th or 13th.  That's not a badge of honor.  Other countries are out-educating us.  And those countries that are out-educating us, they're going to out-innovate us.  They're going to have the good jobs flow to those countries.
 
I want to keep good, high-wage, high-skilled jobs in this country.  We should work on a bipartisan basis, as we have done I think, again, very effectively, to make sure that dream of going to going to college for the middle class, that sense of security, we get back to that and provide greater opportunity. 
 
Q    Can we talk about a couple of other issues, since we're about to land?
 
Q    One more thing -- any thoughts of stepping down from being Secretary of Education soon?
 
SECRETARY DUNCAN:  (Shakes his head no.)
 
Q    On Egypt, any updates on the U.S. policy on aid?  And has the President had any other similar high-level meetings since the one on Tuesday?
 
MR. EARNEST:  I don't have any additional meetings to read out to you on this.  This is the subject of ongoing conversation at the White House, of course, but no additional high-level meetings like the one the President had I think two days ago now.
Q    Phone calls?
 
MR. EARNEST:  No phone calls to read out and no change in terms of our ongoing review of our aid and assistance relationship with Egypt.
 
Q    Any reaction about Mubarak?
 
MR. EARNEST:  We've seen those reports.  I got asked about this a couple of days ago.  This is a matter that's being -- winding its way through the Egyptian legal system.  I don't have a specific comment on each step in that process.
 
I will say that the revolution from 2011 in Egypt is still fresh in the minds of the Egyptian people and there is little desire/evidence on the part of the Egyptian people that they want to turn back the clock to the Mubarak regime.
 
And that is why the United States stands with the Egyptian people as they seek a government that reflects their will.  And it's why we're working with the interim government to encourage them to go back to a transition to a democratically elected civilian government, and overall, an inclusive political process.
 
Q    Josh, can we expect to hear from the President at all about the situation in Syria with regards to the reports of chemical weapons?  And was there any pause given at all to whether the optics are good of going on a bus trip today to talk about education when that bloodshed is happening?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me take those as two separate questions.  The first thing I'll say is the United States is appalled by reports of widespread civilian killings in Syria that were reported just a couple of nights ago.  The images that we've seen are nothing short of horrifying.  And that is why the senior administration officials have been in touch with their counterparts around the world to coordinate on our response.  There was some consultation at the United Nations Security Council yesterday.
 
But what is true today is something that was true yesterday, which is that there is a U.N. chemical weapons investigative team on the ground in Syria right now.  You have an Assad regime that denies responsibility for the use of these chemical weapons.  The easiest way for them to demonstrate that they are on the side of the international community in opposition to the use of chemical weapons is to allow this U.N. team full access to the site to try to get to the bottom of what happened.   
 
     That means allowing them to interview witnesses.  That means allowing them to collect physical samples.  And that allows them unfettered access to the region so that they can do their work.  And we renew our call for the Assad regime to do exactly that.
 
     Now, in terms of the bus tour, this is a -- seeking a better bargain for the middle class is a top priority of the President’s. It is critical, as you heard Secretary Duncan say, to the long-term success of the United States of America.  And as we’re weighing these domestic policy decisions, and as we’re weighing these foreign policy decisions, the President puts the interest of the United States of America first.
 
     And I think the fact that we are doing this bus tour is an indication that the President has his priorities straight while he continues to monitor what is an increasingly tragic situation in Syria.
 
     Q    One domestic policy question -- reports by a colleague of mine that Republicans in the House are considering linking the debt ceiling negotiations or the budget negotiations to some leverage over Obamacare.  Do you have a reaction to that?
 
     MR. EARNEST:  The reaction is that those comments are disappointing but hardly surprising.  We have seen Republican members of Congress and their advisors repeatedly suggest that the full faith and credit of the United States is a useful point of leverage for them to accomplish a political goal.
 
     Setting aside the fact that that political goal is denying access to health care coverage to millions of Americans, it’s just wrong.  The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.  And it is the responsibility of the Congress to pass legislation that will allow them to pay the bills that they’ve already racked up.  They should do that without drama and without delay when they return from the August recess.
 
     Anything else?  Okay.  Thanks, everybody.
 
                             END                10:12 A.M. EDT
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