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Obamas promote education, college opportunity and financial aid initiatives

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The first couple President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama collaborated together on Friday, March 7, 2014 to promote a higher education and financial aid initiatives both have working on; the Free Application for Student Aid or FAFSA, appearing together at Coral Reef High School in Miami, Florida to encourage students to apply and fill out the form. Obama spoke at the school according to the White House about "how a quality education has never been more important to economic success in this country."

The president's new push is part of FAFSA Completion Initiative, where the Department of Education in the upcoming school year will work to insure that the FAFSA forms are completed and that completion information is readily available in the states.

President Obama delivered remarks at the event, where he discussed his education initiatives that are part of his economic opportunity program to provide opportunity to reach the middle class and the fiscal year 2015 budget he just unveiled days before. Obama allotted $750 million for education in the new budget; $300 million for Race to the Top, $200 million for ConnectEd, $150 million for redesigning high school curriculums, and $100 million for college affordability programs.

Among those initiatives included in President Obama's remarks were a new Race to the Top competition "to close achievement and opportunity gaps," ConnectED, and financial aid for college education. ConnectEd provides high speed wireless internet and technologies in the classroom, and the professional development for teachers to maximize the technologies in their classrooms.

The president primarily discussed the newly simplified Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) online form, which approximately a million high school students each year do not complete. The president is now challenging every high school student to fill the form out regardless if they believe they fit the eligibility requirements, stating; "My challenge to every high school student in America: Fill out the form, even if you think you might not qualify for financial aid, fill out the form. You might qualify. It might change the rest of your life."

The first couple also toured the Miami high school is a "mega-magnet" school that focuses not only on academic, but providing practical, career training associated with their studies in the form of academies. President Obama has been advocating the teaching of practical skills alongside academics in high schools and wants to "redesign" high school education to follow models like that of Coral Reef High School in schools across the country.

Coral Reef High School was also chosen as a model for filling out the FAFSA online form, where application forms filled by graduating seniors rose by over 20 percent in only four years. The Miami Herald reported prior to Obama's visit that half the seniors filled the form in 2009 and in 2013, 71 percent did. In his remarks, Obama praised the high school for that reason; "You guys are ahead of the game, and we're here to tell you that you've got to keep up the good work. We put the FAFSA form online. We made it shorter. And it could change the rest of your life."

Speaking the school's gymnasium, President Obama introduced the education initiatives that are part of his economic opportunity program including universal preschool and expanding Head Start, stating; "We should start teaching our kids at the earliest stages. When we set high expectations, every single one of you can meet them."

President Obama also expressed his goals for all students to have the opportunity for the best educational experience, stating; "By working hard every single day, every single night, you are making the best investment there is in your future. And we want to make sure you've got everything, all the tools you need to succeed."

The president explained the new simplified FAFSA form and what it can do for students; "It is a simple form. It used to be complicated; we made it simple. It doesn't cost anything -- that's why the word "free" is right there in the name. It does not take a long time to fill out. Once you do, you're putting yourself in the running for all kinds of financial support for college -- scholarships, grants, loans, work-study jobs." The form is for all federal financial aid programs, including Pell Grants.

Obama lamented that many high school students do take advantage of the opportunities FAFSA and student aid can do for students struggling financially to attend college; "Unfortunately, there are still a lot of young people all across the country who say the cost of college is holding them back. Some of you may have sat around the kitchen table with your parents wondering about whether you'll be able to afford it…. FAFSA is by far the easiest way to answer that question."

The president boasted about the online FAFSA form; "We're making it easier that ever." The Obama Administration has made the form shorter now taking around 25 minutes "down from over an hour"; additionally IRS data can be imported further simplifying the form's completion process.

Concluding his remarks, President Obama was trying to convince the students to continue to "reach" high to achieve their goals, tying student success to success for schools, and economic success for the country. Obama expressed; "And if you keep reaching for success -- and I know you will, just based on the small sampling we saw of students here -- if you keep working as hard as you can and learning as much as you can, and if you've got big ambitions and big dreams, if you don't let anybody tell you something is out of your reach, if you are convinced that you can do something and apply effort and energy and determination and persistence to that vision, then not only will you be great but this country will be great. Our schools will be great."

Both President Obama and First Lady Michelle have been working to encourage children of minority groups that higher education and college is within reach. As CBS News explains the first couple has been "using their personal stories of how education helped them get where they are today." The president recounted their stories to the students at Coral Reef about striving to get a good education. The president graduated Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and Michelle also graduated from the Ivy League, Princeton University and Harvard Law School. As Obama told the students; "What binds us together is this idea that if you work hard you can make it, that there's opportunity for all. And we've got to restore that idea for your generation, that everybody has the same chance Michelle and I did."

A month ago on Feb. 5, 2014, First Lady Michelle Obama along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia to promote the same initiative; filling out the simplified FAFSA form and convince low income or minority students to aim for a college education. At the event and workshop the first lady stated to the students; "Completing this form is a critical start to completing your education. It's the single most important thing you can do for your future."

The first lady identified with the students and recounted her own struggles to get through university, saying; "I was a work study student all throughout college." She also explained that the FAFSA form opens up "more than $150 billion every year in low-interest loans, in grants that you don't have to pay back, and work study programs that can help cover your educational expenses." Mrs. Obama conveyed her main point; "That's my message for you and for students across the country. Fill out those forms. Don't leave money on the table."

Congressional Republicans have been critical of Obama overhauling old initiatives. Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Rep. John Kline, R-MN commented that "Spending more money on broken programs will not provide the support our most vulnerable children, workers, and families desperately need."

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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