U.S. secretary of education makes stop at KU; he touts ‘great’ value of higher education, but says student loans must improve

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at the University of Kansas on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, as part of a national tour of schools that included a stop on the Lawrence campus.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told a KU crowd on Tuesday that when he was in high school, his thoughts weren’t on fixing the U.S. education system.

“I was studying to fix cars for the rest of my life,” Cardona said of his time at a technical high school in his home state of Connecticut.

But then an art teacher threw a wrench into those plans, so to speak. She encouraged Cardona to go to a local summer camp for creative students, and there Cardona started discovering a host of new interests that ultimately led to three university degrees and a role as the top education adviser to the president.

The system worked well for Cardona.

“At its best,” Cardona told a crowd of more than 200 people at the Jayhawk Welcome Center on the Lawrence campus, “education opens doors.”

It also often requires an opening of wallets. Cardona was at the University of Kansas to kick off a U.S. Department of Education bus tour to coincide with the start of a new school year. His visit to KU came at the same time that the federal government resumed charging interest to people who have federal student loans, after efforts by the Biden administration to forgive some debt ran into both legal and political roadblocks.

“Without question, the loan payments have started, and interest is accruing,” Cardona said in a brief interview with the Journal-World following Tuesday’s event.

Interest on student loans began accruing again — after a multi-year pause related to the pandemic — on Sept. 1. For many borrowers, they will be required to make payments on their loans in October.

Cardona urged student loan borrowers to investigate whether they qualify for the federal government’s SAVE Plan, which is a new program aimed at reducing student loan payments for borrowers on tight incomes. The program replaces a previous program that began reducing loan payments for individuals who earn 150% or less of the federal poverty line income. Now, the new program provides assistance to people earning 225% or less of the poverty line amount.

Cardona said the Biden administration would continue to look for ways to provide additional debt relief through the “regulatory process.” However, he also acknowledged that new legislation that would put into law a plan to forgive large amounts of student debt has become a partisan political issue. Democrats largely backed a plan by the Biden administration, but congressional Republicans largely opposed the measure and prevented it from being included in legislation.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A flag for the U.S. Department of Education is displayed at the Jayhawk Welcome Center on the KU campus as U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona spoke to a crowd at the center on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2023.

Cardona said the administration “is going to continue to fight” for more student debt relief, but said there also is “a team in D.C. that is fighting against you.”

“There are too many Americans right now struggling to make ends meet,” Cardona said. “College loans should not be a sentence for the rest of their lives where they can’t buy homes.”

Despite the costs, Cardona said he is still passionate about helping people understand the value of higher education.

“Look, without question, a higher education degree changes the trajectory of a student and families,” Cardona said. “It is multigenerational … The value in higher education is great. What we need to do is make it more accessible to more people.”

Cardona said that involves improvements to the student loan system, more transparency from universities about the cost of programs, and more initiatives that allow high school students to get an early start on college coursework.

Area education leaders said they highlighted to Cardona several local efforts on those fronts. Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Lewis told the secretary and the KU crowd about a partnership with KU that allows Lawrence school district students to take KU courses for a third of the standard tuition rate.

KU Chancellor Douglas Girod highlighted the research work that KU is doing to address a shortage of teachers, improve classroom environments, and promote new ways of learning. Girod said KU received more than $27 million in research funding from the U.S. Department of Education last year. That was KU’s second-largest research category, trailing only programs funded by the National Institutes of Health, Girod said.

Cardona said he was particularly impressed with local efforts that involved the university and K-12 education systems collaborating on programs and ideas.

“There is a sense of family here, and they understand what is at stake,” he said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Big Jay and Baby Jay were on hand at the Jayhawk Welcome Center on the University of Kansas Campus on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2023 as U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona spoke to a university crowd as part of a national tour of schools that included a stop on the Lawrence campus.


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