U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan answered many questions Wednesday during a wide-ranging discussion during a "Town Hall on College Affordability and the Latino Community."
Duncan, along with Luis Fraga, a member of President Barack Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, handled nearly two dozen questions with thought, some humor, compassion, and a clear command of the issue of college affordability and the general state of education in the nation.
But it was a brief story Duncan told which summarized Wednesday's program, held at the Joe Crowley Student Union.
Duncan told the story of a family he had met in the Midwest. The family had to make a wrenching decision. The family had college-aged twins. And, in order to afford college, the family had to pick one child - not both - to attend college.
To send both twins to college at the same time would've been too financially prohibitive for the family, Duncan said.
One dream realized. Another dream deferred.
"It's intolerable, unacceptable," Duncan said of such a decision. "I can't tell you how many middle-class communities, and not even disadvantaged communities, who feel that college isn't affordable for them."
He added, later: "There is a set of folks in this country who think of education as an expense. The President and I think education is an investment, and probably the best investment we have in this country."
The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to bring the Town Hall event to Reno. The University's Latino Research Center was also a primary sponsor of the Town Hall.
The public-forum event was part of the U.S. Department of Education's "Education Drives America" bus tour. A sizeable crowd, including students from six local high schools, the University, Truckee Meadows Community College, as well as parents, teachers, veterans, public officials, and University faculty and staff, attended.
Although such a story was sobering, Duncan emphasized that much is being done to making college more affordable, especially for rapidly growing college-bound populations such as members of the Latino community.
Duncan said the growth in Pell Grants over the past few years was just one example, with the number of Pell Grant recipients having grown from 6 to 10 million.
Fraga added that the President's Advisory Committee had also developed a number of recommendations to make the process of entering college more seamless, including providing training for "all families, and Latino families in particular" to understand and complete FAFSA forms; reforming caps for financial aid programs that are often based on four-year completion aspirations but don't reflect the reality that it often takes underrepresented groups such as Latinos "six to eight years" to complete college; plus more work study programs.
And Fraga added, there needs to be more awareness that state-mandated budget reductions of higher education to fill budget shortfalls can lead to unintended consequences, such as higher tuition, or as Fraga put it "a tax on those families that are investing on their children and those students who are investing in themselves."
"State legislatures have to do more in collaboration with the federal government, to ensure that these costs aren't passed onto to these families," said Fraga, who is also a professor at the University of Washington and a lifelong educator.
University President Marc Johnson welcomed Duncan and Fraga to campus, noting that "we are an access school." Johnson said the latest University enrollment figures show that 29 percent of the University's more than 18,000 students come from "diverse ethnic backgrounds."
"On this campus, the number of Hispanics, Latino and Chicano grew by 13 percent from last year," Johnson said. "We have 2,400 students of that general ethnic background on this campus and we're very pleased to have each and every one of them here."
Washoe County School Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who grew up in Chicago and was hired by Duncan when Duncan was Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, told the crowd that Duncan "is passionate about all of you, about education, about changing the landscape of this country."
"The future of our country and the future of the Hispanic community are inextricably linked," Duncan said. "You guys have to keep working hard and you're going to have a world of opportunity for you and your family. If you don't, then doors of opportunity will slam on you."
Duncan said he is heartened by the number of Hispanics who now see higher education as a viable option to increase their education and their chances for a successful career.
"The past two years, we've had a 25 percent increase enrollment in college in this country," he said. "It's remarkable. We have to make sure that enrollment translates to graduation. I want you guys to take those numbers to a different level."
Added Fraga: "You're not in this alone. There are many people at many different levels of government who believe in you and who are working very hard to make sure our educational system responds to your intelligence and your aspirations."
When asked why a college education was important, particularly when there are some jobs in the Reno-Tahoe area which can pay $28 per hour without a college education, Fraga was frank.
"The average income that is earned by someone with a college degree compared to high school degree, over the course of a lifetime, pays far more, in the neighborhood of three to six million dollars," he said.