Interview with Secretary Duncan

Interview with Secretary Duncan

By John King, USA - March 30, 2010

KING: Mr. Secretary, first, thanks for joining us.


KING: It's a big day for you and you think this is great progress when it comes to student loans. Answer the skeptic out there who might think OK, I'm getting rid of the middle man, the banks but can the government really handle this? Do I trust the government to be more efficient and more effective?

DUNCAN: This is simply removing the subsidies of banks, putting all those stages of education, putting students first, it's the right thing due to the private market driving up over the past couple of years have actually gone from about 1,000 universities doing direct lending to over 2,300 before we did anything. So this was happening already. So far, FSA has handled this extraordinarily well. I'm going to continue to make sure they do a great job. I'm absolutely confident that we can do this well, do it efficiently, and put tens of billions of dollars of savings behind education, which is where it should be.

KING: We looked at a lot of student newspapers around the country and there's not a lot of criticism. Actually people seem pretty happy about the changes but there are some questions about where do I get more information, so for somebody out there who says, you know, over night this is changing, what do they need to do?

DUNCAN: They can visit our Web site and it's actually pretty significant. We've dramatically simplified the financial aid form itself, the FAFSA form, which is hugely complicated. I kept saying you had to have a PhD to figure it out. And that's a problem when you're 17 you don't have your PhD yet. Tens of billions, $36 billion in increased Pell grants for students making college much more assessable and affordable, $2 billion for community colleges, $2.5 billion for HBCU's and other minority-serving institutions, and in the back end, this is really important.

Some call it income-base repayment, IBR, loan repayments are reduced to 10 percent of income. And after 10 years of public service, working in the community, at a nonprofit, teaching, whatever it might be, 10 years of that public service work, any remaining loans will be erased. So this is a big, big deal.

KING: Is there any downside? People out there will hear you putting off all of those numbers, it all sounds favorable, such a big transition like this, is there anything negative to it?

DUNCAN: We have to make sure we execute well against this, but at a time we have to educate our way to a better economy, to stop subsidizing banks and put $68 billion into education. This is a historic opportunity. I'm so thankful for the president's leadership and Congress' courage in passing this. This is the right idea at the right time.

KING: I know you're aware of the Republican criticism; on this particular program they say why should the government do this? They also say it kills jobs.

DUNCAN: All of the servicing of the loans, where the action is, 100 percent of that will be done by the private sector. It doesn't matter who originates it, but servicing those loans good actors will get more business, bad actors will lose business. The free market will play. Not our sweet spot, not our (INAUDIBLE) all of that will be done in the private sector. That's a huge and growing business opportunity.

KING: Address, also, the Education Department is usually exempt from this, but you're in a town now that's very political and the critics link this into their narrative. They say this is an administration that thinks government knows best, government does best, let's get more government.

DUNCAN: Obviously just simply not the case. Sixty billion dollars you continue to subsidize banks or do you invest in education? This is the right thing for students. It's the right thing for the country. It's the right thing for American taxpayers. Very simple choice, it's the right idea.

KING: What happens to somebody who's in mid stream? Obviously if you're coming out of high school, it's a brand-new program. If you're in mid stream, how does it change your life?

DUNCAN: You keep going the way you were, but for students coming in to have a simplified FAFSA form, to have much more accessibility to Pell grants at a time going to college is so expensive and then to have your loan repayments reduced at the back end, this is going change their life opportunities going forward.

KING: One of the other challenges you face is reauthorizing "no child left behind" and you'd like some changes in that. Pretty poisonous political environment in town now, you were trying to get that done on a bipartisan basis. A lot of Republicans are saying, you know after the health care debate, we don't really see any chance for bipartisan cooperation. Can you do that this year?

DUNCAN: I'm actually very optimistic. We've seen tremendous bipartisan support. Republicans, Democrats, House, Senate, everyone wants to get better. Education has to rise above politics and ideology, all that has to go to the side. People have been very, very thoughtful. No one is protecting the status quo. We have to educate --

KING: Get it done by this year?


DUNCAN: We want to get it done this year. We have a dropout rate that's 27 percent in this country, John. That is economically unsustainable, morally unacceptable. We have to graduate many more students and we have to make sure many more of our students who graduate are actually prepared for college and careers. That's what this is about. We have to work together to get there.

KING: Your problem in selling that isn't just reaching out to Republicans. You get a lot of criticism from the teachers unions who say that this administration is too willing to hold teachers accountable. And they say in the "no child left behind" that they get all this responsibility but not the authority they would need to implement it.

DUNCAN: We all have to work together. One of the big changes we want to make under this is not just hold schools and teaches accountable but school districts and even states. All of us have to move outside of our comfort zones. All of us have to stop pointing fingers. We have to educate our way to a better economy. We as adults have to step up to give our students the education opportunities they desperately need and deserve.

KING: I'm go ask you lastly as people prepare for the "Final Four", you have been rather outspoken in saying, look, a lot of these schools that have wonderful basketball programs don't necessarily have the highest education standards. And you think if they don't graduate 40 percent of their students, the NCAA should say you know you can't be involved in "March Madness" and in other -- other of the tournaments like -- but you don't -- you say you don't want to enforce that, you can't make it mandatory. How do you make that work?

DUNCAN: Well we're working with the NCAA and it's really up to them, but I just think, John, if universities can't graduate two out of five of their student athletes how serious they are about their core mission. And the core mission isn't to win games. It's to make sure student athletes get that -- graduate, get that piece of paper, get that diploma at the back end, and I was lucky enough to have a phenomenal college athletic experience.

The vast majority of student athletes get that. I worry when athletes are simply used by their universities to produce revenue, to make money for them, nothing to show at the back end. I grew up with a lot of players who had very, very tough lives -- after the ball started bouncing for them and that's what I'm going to continue to fight.

KING: You say it's not their core mission, but is it -- in some schools is it the core mission more to use the athletes, your language, as opposed to actually get them education and athletics is secondary.

DUNCAN: Well if that's how they see that, I would argue they have the wrong values. This is about student athletes, students always coming first and where those values are out of line or misplaced, I think I have an obligation to challenge the status quo and I'm going to continue to do that.

KING: Is there anything the government does if the NCAA doesn't go along or --

DUNCAN: Well we're going to continue to work with them and think this thing through. But again, we have to make sure there are 18, 19, 20-year-olds aren't just you know dribbling a basketball or you know playing football just to make money for their university. They have to be working towards that degree. The vast majority of schools do a phenomenal job of this, do it impeccably well.

What I don't understand is why we -- those handful -- that small handful of bad apples I don't know why we continue to tolerate that. We don't need to tolerate that.

KING: Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time.


John King, USA

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