LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — That graduation stroll across the stage to receive a high school diploma should be a "starting point" leading to college or vocational training, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday in stressing higher education as the key to lifting more people into the middle class.
During a visit to Louisville, Duncan touted President Barack Obama's plan to make two years of community college free for students who earn good grades and stay on track to graduate. Duncan called the proposal a potential "game changer" to reduce cost as a barrier to college.
A generation ago, the U.S. led the world in college graduation rates but now ranks 12th, he said.
Some form of higher education should be the goal for students, whether it's at two- or four-year colleges or vocational trade schools, he said.
"The high school walk across the stage for graduation is a really important starting point, but it's not an ending point," Duncan said during a stop at Jefferson Community and Technical College.
The White House estimates that 9 million students could eventually participate in Obama's college program and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year if they attend fulltime. Participating schools would have to meet certain academic requirements. The program would cost billions of dollars. The White House has said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost and the final quarter would come from states opting into the program.
Duncan visited a city that has made it a goal to boost its college-educated workforce. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the city has made progress but is running "short of the trajectory" toward its goal, and he cited affordability as a big issue.
Duncan said an education model spanning pre-kindergarten through at least two years of post-secondary work must become the U.S. norm.
"If we're serious about giving young people a chance to fulfill dreams, have more young people enter the middle class ... reduce income inequality, we have to do more educationally," he said. "And so both the front end and the back end, we have to go to the next level."
Duncan spent part of the day meeting with teachers, administrators and community leaders in Kentucky's largest city. He praised Kentucky for education initiatives that have increased its high school graduation rate, and where more students are graduating ready for college and careers.
"I'm always looking at who's getting better, faster," Duncan said. "And by multiple measures, Kentucky is getting better, faster, than the vast majority of states. That's hard to do. There's nothing easy about this work."
Gov. Steve Beshear said the initiatives are crucial to creating a vibrant state economy that attracts business.
Kentucky was among five states that recently received a four-year extension to have more freedom from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law.
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