MODERATOR: For this important call, the topic is making college affordable for all, and, of course, that is something that is very important to those who are on the line. They are students, as well as high schools, and they are very much interested in knowing about making college affordable for all.
We have on the line from — "from Ohio" — from Iowa, we have Secretary Vilsack who is going to first give some information about making college affordable, and then we will open it up for a couple of phone calls. And now I turn it over to Secretary Vilsack.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Susan, thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity to visit with folks today, particularly those associated and affiliated with FFA. Know that these are young people who are very interested in making sure that they have opportunities available to them to extend their education, and, certainly, we have established a very close relationship with FFA and are beginning to emphasize more frequently the importance of ag education throughout the country.
The President has set a very ambitious goal for the country. Many years ago, the United States was the number-one country in the world for the percentage of young people in college and graduated from college. That is no longer the case. So the President has challenged all of us to work to make sure that America once again becomes number one in the country and in the world for the number of students graduating from colleges as a proportion of our population. And that is very important, because we are in a very competitive economic circumstance, and the more highly educated and trained our students are and our young people are, the more likely they will be competitive in this economy.
He also understands and appreciates, more than any other President, the importance of the community college system. It is very clear to the President and to me that young people don't necessarily always need a 4-year college degree in order to be successful and that community colleges provide technical assistance and education and training, which is extraordinarily important for a country that wants to get back in the business of making and creating things. And so the President has set as a second goal over the course of the next decade increasing the number of community college students by 5 million. What this will do is it will make sure that we have a skilled and trained workforce as we rebuild this American economy so that the middle class is strengthened.
Now, in order for that to happen, obviously, people are very concerned about the cost of college education, and that is the reason why this administration has spent a lot of time and resources in a very tight budget circumstance and situation increasing the number of Pell Grants as well as increasing the overall award of a Pell Grant to make it just a bit easier for young people to afford college or community college education.
In addition to that, the President has signed legislation that will increase Pell Grant awards by the consumer price index, so that they will always keep pace with inflation, and the President has supported an historic increase in support from the Federal Government for community colleges, specifically the Community College and Career Training Initiative which is helping to ensure that we have skilled workers in the future.
All of that, I think now is somewhat at risk, based on steps that are being taken by Congress this week. The House of Representatives will be voting on a number of budget issues this week, and one of them will involve whether or not we will see a reduction in Pell Grants and whether or not we will see a reduction in the support for work study programs which will make it easier for students to access college.
In addition, the House of Representative has before it a bill that would assure that we would not see a doubling of interest rates on college student loans. Effective July 1, absent action by the Congress, the interest rate on student loans will double. What that will mean for the most part for most students will mean an additional $1,000 in debt per year for the number of years that they have a student loan. In some cases that could increase the debt load of young people between $20,000 and $30,000. This obviously impacts the 7.4 million students who are currently using student loans as a way of financing college education.
Both the House and the Senate have indicated a desire to avoid that increase in the interest rate. The question is whether or not the Senate version, which uses tax loopholes, closing tax loopholes to basically pay for this, where the House version which currently is looking at cutting preventative health care to about a half-a-million women around the country, is the most appropriate way of paying for the cost of this interest rate issue.
So it is important, I think, for people to weigh in to make sure that Congress makes the right set of decisions. Cutting preventative health care is probably not the best way to do this. There may be other ways, but clearly there are some concerns on the part of the administration, on the part of a lot of us, that preventative health care ought not to be cut, particularly for those in rural areas where we are dealing with a health care system in the past that has not favorably treated rural residents. We end up paying more out of pocket. We end up having poor results and less access, and preventative care becomes extraordinarily important, particularly for women in rural areas.
Now, the question is why is the Secretary of Agriculture talking about all of this. Well, I think it is important to understand the future of agriculture and the important role that education is going to play in that future.
For those who are interested on this call in participating in production agriculture, taking over mom and dad's farm or the grandparents' farm and being able to continue to produce commodities that are needed in this country and around the world, we are going to have to continue to have great researchers who are going to be able to learn how to alter seed and farming practices just so that we can continue to be as productive as we have been in the past and continue to increase our productivity. We will need a 70-percent increase in ag productivity globally to meet the demand for food as the world population grows. So education, obviously, is key to the success of production agriculture.
If there are those on the phone who are interested in conservation and the environment, which we think is a critical component of a successful revitalized rural economy as we expand conservation, clean up our water, maintain our soil, and make sure that we take advantage of the outdoor recreational activities that clean water and vibrant forests and the grasslands provide, we are going to need people who are contractors who know how to essentially put in place the conservation practices that are important. We will need those who are well versed in water issues to provide technical assistance. That too requires a higher degree of education and training, all of which will play to the strength of a person with a 4-year college degree or a community college certificate.
For those who are interested in the local and regional food system, it is an expanding aspect of agriculture in this country. We are going to need entrepreneurs. We are going to need people who understand business, who know how to put together a business plan. If they want to start a local consumer-supported agricultural system or if they want to work with a local school to provide fruits or vegetables or other products, it is going to be important for those folks to have that kind of business background, which will come from having the opportunity to participate in college or in community college.
And, finally, for those who are interested in this expanded opportunity as a biobased economy, which started with fuels and now is extending into chemicals and polymers and fabrics and fibers, new small businesses creating and dotting the landscape, refineries being built, new ways to produce virtually everything we need in an economy from what we grow and raise, we are obviously going to need folks who are very well versed in science, those who are engaged in research and development projects that will figure out how to use waste products from agricultural production to make these chemicals or these fibers or fabrics or plastics. We will certainly need folks who can work with their hands, because these facilities will have to be built and maintained and operated. All of that is going to require a highly trained and skilled workforce.
And, certainly, the new energy economy the President has talked about, which is more dependent on renewable energy, more dependent on the capacity of Rural America to provide energy and fuel, is going to require that skilled workforce. So it is very, very important that as a country, even though we are dealing with tight fiscal circumstances, that we do everything we can to make college affordable, to make community college available, so that young people can get the skills and the training and the education that they can use to revitalize this rural economy. This is an historic opportunity that the country has with good commodity, strong commodity prices to revitalize the rural economy and provide new options and new alternatives for young people to repopulate these rural areas, to maintain these small towns. So it is important. And adding additional student debt, cutting Pell Grants, making community college less affordable or less available is not the right strategy.
So I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you this morning and taking a few minutes of your time to talk about this important issue of access to college and how it relates to a new revitalized rural economy.
With that, Susan, I'd be glad to answer questions.
MODERATOR: Mr. Secretary, actually, we do have a few folks on the line who would like to ask you a question. Stephanie Jolliff with Ridgemont FFA Chapter in Ridgeway, Ohio, is on the line. Stephanie, go ahead with your question.
QUESTIONER (Ridgemont FFA Chapter): Hi there. Actually, I have Cody Seiler with me, and he is the FFA president of Ridgemont, and he is going to ask a question right now.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Okay, thank you.
QUESTIONER (Ridgemont FFA Chapter): Hello. As she said, I'm Cody Seiler, and the question that our chapter raises is, because of the new technology and the ag bioscience involved with American agriculture, how do we go about preparing the country's youth for being able to prepare for college to utilize this technology and educators prepare them in the classroom?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think that is a really important question, and I think it really starts with the elementary, middle school, and high school, the K-12 system. I think it is extraordinarily important that we continue to emphasize the significance of science, to encourage young people to be interested in science and in math.
The President and his administration and the Department of Education have put a heavy emphasis on STEM, science, technology and mathematics education, and so it is important that we continue to have programs in our high schools, in our middle schools that encourage young people to pursue science and also to pursue agriculture and understand the important role that agriculture plays and will play in a new economy in this country.
The unfortunate circumstances that in too many cases when schools are faced with tight budgets, we are in a situation where the first thing that goes is the ag education program and the voc ed program. We think this is a mistake, and we are encouraging, working with the FFA. We have got a memorandum of understanding with the FFA and Department of Education to try to make sure that folks understand at the local level the importance of ag education, the importance of science, and be able to promote and encourage young people to participate and to be excited about science and then take that on into community college and college.
MODERATOR: We have another question that comes from the Animal Science class teacher, Jeff Shelpepper, and he is at Raymond Central High School in Raymond, Nebraska. Jeff.
QUESTIONER (Raymond Central High School): This is Zach Settje. Jeff Shelpepper is my FFA advisor and teacher. I am a sophomore of the Central FFA Chapter, and my question for you is, how important is hands-on experience in preparing for a career in agriculture?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, Zach, I think it is pretty obvious. Agriculture, farming, ranching, and the enterprises that can stem from farming and ranching, I think are some of the most difficult callings in the country. Not only do you have to know the technical aspects of how to raise livestock or plant a crop and be able to harvest that crop, but you also have to know how to manage the risks associated with agriculture.
As you well know, we face some very interesting weather patterns from time to time that can make it very difficult for farmers and ranchers to be successful. They don't have any control over the weather, so they have to figure out ways in which they can manage that risk through things like crop insurance and the safety net that is part of our food, farm, and jobs structure in this country. And so it is important that people have hands-on experience and real life experience.
That is one of the reasons why we worked with the Department of Labor recently to encourage the Department to take a step back from the child labor laws that they were considering. They have, as you know, probably pulled those proposed rules, and we are going to work with the Department of Labor and farm groups, including the FFA and other farm organizations, to do a better job of encouraging farm safety, so that young people can get that hands-on experience, they can see firsthand precisely how difficult and challenging and how rewarding this life can be, and to be able to learn the techniques and the ways in which to not only do the technical hands-on aspects of farming but also understand and appreciate some of the business and mental aspects of farming.
And we think this is extraordinarily important, because we want farms of all sizes in this country. We want farms to continue to provide the diverse commodities that we have in this country. We are food secure in this nation because we have so many different things that are grown and raised, so many different products that are grown and raised. We essentially can meet our own food needs, and we obviously want the next generation of farmers to be able to do that. And it is a challenge, because the average age of a farmer today in America is probably close to 60 years of age, and we need to be figuring out ways in which we can encourage young people to get involved in this business. And one way to discourage them, I think, is to make it harder for them to access the technical information and knowledge in school or to access the hands-on experience on the farm and the ranch which might make it easier for them to be successful if we raise college expense, we limit access to college, or if we fail to have voc ed and ag ed in our K-12 system.
MODERATOR: We have another question that is coming your way, Mr. Secretary. It comes from Grant County High School in Elgin, Nebraska, and the ag education teacher is Pete Hetle.
QUESTIONER (Grant County FFA Chapter): Good morning. We are in North Dakota. Our question today is going to come Ashley Werner. She is the new president of Grant County FFA.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Okay.
QUESTIONER (Grant County FFA Chapter): With the emphasis on science and math, will there be room for ag ed and other CTE classes?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, Ashley, I think there has to be, because, you know, a science class can be quite — you know, you can take biology, you can take chemistry, you can physics. Those are all important — or general science. You can take all of those and get a basic understanding, but, obviously, ag ed — it speaks to Zach's question about the importance of hands-on experience and being able to have a conversation and discussion about the various things that farmers and ranchers have to do. I mean, farmers and ranchers, they not only have to be able to figure out how to plant the crop, but they need to know how to fix the combine or the planter when things go awry.
They need to know how to market their crop at the appropriate time. Markets change on a daily, minute-by-minute basis, and if you make the wrong decision, you can either be very profitable or not so profitable. So it is important, I think, to have the ag education component of a K-12 system, so that those who are interested in farming can get the basics, the foundation upon which they can then go to a community college and get additional training or they can go to a 4-year college and get additional education.
Again, if we don't have that ag education component to K-12, then youngsters don't know that that is an option. They may not appreciate and understand the difficulties. They may not have the foundation that would allow them to be successful in a community college or a 4-year college setting, which means that they will move away from considering a life in agriculture.
I cannot underemphasize — or overemphasize, I guess is a better way of saying it. I can't overemphasize how important it is for all of you who are on this call to think about the tremendous opportunities that agriculture presents. I mean, the ability in production agriculture to feed the world, there is no greater calling than basically making sure that humankind survives.
To be able to improve the environment of this country, to make sure that that we continue to have the soil that allows us to have this rich diversity of agricultural production, to be able to work to clean up the waters of this country so that there are outdoor recreational opportunities that can spur an economy in a community, in a rural community, the capacity to start your own business, to link up what you are producing with a local school or a farmers market and basically cement and create a stronger sense of community, the ability to create a whole new energy future for this country, the capacity to wean ourselves off of our reliance on foreign oil through a biobased economy, these are all the options and all the opportunities that you as high school students, college students, have today.
And you can build this economy. You can build this future. You can bring America to a much different place, a much more competitive place, but you have to have the education. You have to have the training. You have to have an awareness of all of the complexities of agriculture, and so it is important for us to continue to promote a system of education that acknowledges the important role that agriculture plays. One out of every 12 jobs in this country is connected to agriculture.
One of the reasons why we turned the corner in this economy is because we have a strong agricultural economy. We are seeing rural unemployment go down at a little faster rate than other parts of the country, and that is because of the success of agriculture. So we obviously we want to continue to build on that.
MODERATOR: Mr. Secretary, I'd like to just ask you one question. What about the possibility — I know in FFA, there is a chance for students to get some hands-on experience, but for those who may not necessarily be involved, opportunities available for internships on the high school level where students can actually start getting some hands-on experience as well coupled with what they could have with, you know, their classes in school?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, Susan, there are opportunities obviously, as you mentioned, through FFA, and that is probably the best opportunity that young people have. Obviously, those can also be involved in 4-H. 4-H is an extraordinarily successful program as well, and a lot of young people participate in 4-H.
The notion of internships would certainly encourage folks at the local level to mentor and to create internship opportunities on farms and ranches, especially for town kids who may be curious about what it means to work on a farm and may be interested in being outdoors and having that way of life, but they don't live in a farm family. They don't have any relatives who own farmland. They are a small-town kid who wants that opportunity. And that is, again, another reason why it is important to have the ag education and the vocational training maintained in our high schools and in our middle schools, because that is the opportunity that the town kid has to maybe learn a little bit about how to fix a tractor or how to plant crops and how to market crops.
All of that is exciting and encouraging and interesting, and it basically is a great challenging opportunity. And those courses can also, I think, educate young people about the extraordinary diversity of agriculture and the extraordinary diverse opportunities within agriculture, which we have talked about today from conservation, local regional food systems, production agriculture, a biobased economy. These are all extraordinary expanding opportunities.
Even in a tough economic circumstance, we are seeing record amounts of investments from this administration in all those areas, because we recognize the importance of Rural America to the rest of the country. So I hope that young people who are on this call can get excited about what they are doing and hope that they can continue to be ambassadors and advocates in their community for ag education, for voc education, and for programs like 4-H and FFA.
MODERATOR: Excellent closing, Mr. Secretary.
We want to thank everyone who was on the line listening to learning about making college affordable for all, and thank you for joining us, and we hope to have you on next time.