Accelerating American Achievement: Dr. Martha Kanter, U.S. Education under Secretary, Is Driving the Administration's Higher Education Agenda and All Roads Go through Community Colleges

Article excerpt

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, D.C., 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. …

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