Kanter Gets Candid About Accelerating American Achievement - Higher Education

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Kanter Gets Candid About Accelerating American Achievement

by Charles Dervarics

For Dr. Martha Kanter, the Education Department’s chief point person for higher education, the priorities are many: more Pell Grant funding, an ambitious plan to raise college-graduation rates and a bill in Congress with major student loan reforms.

But a conversation with the Education Department’s under secretary invariably turns to her experiences as a community college administrator working with low-income students – the target audience for many of the Obama administration’s proposed initiatives.

At the Foothill-De Anza Community College District near San Jose, Calif., she recalled efforts to keep one low-income student working toward a degree. The student was struggling – but succeeding – to balance work and school before dropping out of a required summer composition course. Weeks went by, and, when Kanter finally made contact, the student said the book for the course was too expensive.

“But our college had an emergency loan program,” she told Diverse. Similar to many low-income youth, the student needed more support and information. “It was just a matter of knowing that help was available.”

In an interview with Diverse, the department’s third-highest-ranking official outlined the Obama administration’s plans to help more low-income youth succeed in higher education. But she also included anecdotes from her career in community colleges, serving on the front lines of efforts to increase postsecondary access and success.

After the formal interview, she invited this reporter to stay for a roundtable discussion with a university president and senior aides. The focus of this discussion was access and success strategies already underway at colleges and universities and best practices that the department might support or help replicate in other locations.

Such talks also are part of the under secretary’s agenda. Kanter says she actively seeks input from higher education leaders and stresses the need for transparency. The role of the department, she says, is to serve as “a catalyst for change.”

Part of this catalyst role is to make strategic investments, she says, citing the $100 billion for education in the economic stimulus bill enacted earlier this year. The other chief responsibility is to identify, support and publicize effective practices, with a particular focus on strategies that help low-income students continue their education and complete college.

“We have to do both (access and success) better and smarter,” she says. “Our vision isn’t just one year ahead. It’s long-term and intergenerational. We want to prepare an entire pipeline for the 21st century.”

Community College Focus

Kanter’s appointment offers a watershed moment for the nation’s public two-year colleges. She is the first community college leader to serve as under secretary, the lead post within the department for higher education. In addition to higher education and student aid, vocational and adult education also falls within her portfolio.

Before coming to Washington, Kanter worked extensively in the two-year sector. From 2003 to 2009, she served as chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. The district is one of the largest in the U.S., serving more than 45,000 students with a $400 million budget.

Her background includes several senior posts in the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. She also has served as a board member or officer in a variety of national, state and local organizations, including the League for Innovation in the Community College and the Community College League of California.

Not surprisingly, her experience on the front line of the college-access challenge has given her insight into how to nurture and support low-income students. While financial aid is important, she says, it’s also essential to have a caring adviser or mentor.

“Students need someone who believes in them – a professor, a high school teacher or a college-access program,” she says. “We have a social responsibility to open these doors.”

Based on this experience, Kanter actively touts the positive role that public two-year colleges can play in helping low- and moderate-income students gain access to higher education.

“Community colleges are the gateway to college for many students of color,” Kanter says. Nationwide, community colleges enroll 46 percent of U.S. undergraduates, and 35 percent of community college students are minorities.

Her background is particularly important as the Obama administration pursues its higher education priorities. Community colleges are central to a White House goal to restore the U.S. as an international leader in the share of citizens with postsecondary degrees. In trying to implement the proposed American Graduation Initiative, the administration wants to spend $12 billion more on community colleges during the next decade. New funding would support facility improvements, work force development programs and expansion of online instruction and support services so individuals have access to courses whenever they need them.

Despite this community college focus, Kanter says the Obama administration is seeking broader solutions that focus on the education pipeline from early childhood to higher education.

“Our job is to accelerate American achievement,” she says. Within that framework, she says she has three core goals: 

  • Creating and improving existing policies, including student financial aid, greater transparency and efforts to determine what works in American higher education
  • Providing more financial support to students, via student financial aid programs as well as partnerships with philanthropic organizations and the private sector
  • Serving as a “bully pulpit” for change, showcasing effective strategies and encouraging state and local innovation in areas such as teacher education and student persistence. “We want to be a responsive center for American higher education.”

Some Success to Date

Kanter can point to some success so far. For example, the $787 billion economic stimulus bill provided nearly $100 billion for education, including $15 billion to fund a $500 increase in the maximum Pell Grant. The package also provided a new tax credit to offset college costs and “stabilization” funds to help school districts avoid painful cuts in the recession.

More higher education funding would be available through the Student Assistance and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) passed by the House and now before the Senate. SAFRA includes $3 billion for a college access and completion fund along with $2.5 billion for community college facilities and $630 million in other grants to community colleges. Other provisions include $2.5 billion for minority-serving institutions and a $1,350 increase in the maximum Pell Grant over the next decade.

To fund these new investments, SAFRA would eliminate bank-generated student loans in favor of less costly, government-backed Direct Loans, which would result in fundamental changes in higher education policy.

By eliminating loan subsidies for banks, she says, the federal government can save an estimated $9 billion a year. The administration is offering assistance to small institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities, to facilitate the switch.

Kanter says the administration is taking other steps to help minority-serving institutions. She cites administration action in filling two key posts: director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs and the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanic Americans. Leaders from both initiatives have conducted nationwide “listening” sessions to gather input for the administration’s agenda. For the Hispanic initiative, which focuses on the entire education pipeline, these sessions have generated more contact between K-12 and higher education leaders.

Kanter also cited the president’s recent action to revive the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Created by former President Bill Clinton in 1999, the program was allowed to lapse under George W. Bush’s administration in 2007. In relaunching the initiative, President Barack Obama cited the need to collect more information on various Asian subgroups to better target federal policy.

The Asian-American initiative will be housed at the Education Department, under Kanter’s authority. She says she is in regular contact with the leaders of the Hispanic and HBCU initiatives, since directors of those programs work not far from her office. “They’re working with the rest of us on these education issues,” she says.

Looking long term, Kanter also wants to boost college and university involvement in international issues, including globalization and climate change. “Higher education has a role in sustainability,” she says.

Internally within the department, there also is a drive to focus on the entire education continuum with greater cooperation among K-12 and higher education leaders within the federal bureaucracy. “We are talking systemically,” she says.

After many years on the West Coast, she also welcomes a chance to move back east, where she completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees and served as a high school teacher. “It is the most exciting time of my life.”

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