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Obama Calls for Innovation in High School and Higher Ed.

In last night's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama issued a challenge to high schools to better prepare graduates for the modern workforce and to colleges to improve affordability and value. (For full coverage, see Politics K-12.)

To help a high school diploma put students on a path to a good job, Obama urged more collaborative efforts between public schools, community colleges, and employers. The president referenced the German system where students can graduate from high school job-ready with the equivalent of a technical degree at community colleges.

For an American example, he heralded the work of Pathways in Technology Early College High School that opened in 2011 in Brooklyn, N.Y. (P-TECH was profiled in The New York Times in October and referred to as the new future of vocational education.) It is a grade 9-14 model public high school that operates in collaboration with City University of New York and IBM. Like at other early-college high schools, students graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree — but here the training is in computers or engineering, particularly aimed to prepare students for entry-level jobs at IBM. "We need to give every American student opportunities like this," said Obama.

For schools to work more closely with businesses and provide students with relevant work experience, the president wants a Race to the Top-type competition for high schools. "Tonight, I'm announcing a new challenge to redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy," Obama said. "We'll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math—the skills today's employers are looking for to fill the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future."

Further policy details provided online after the speech indicated the president will continue to support the $8 billion Community College to Career Fund he put forward in his budget last year for job training.

"We are appreciative that the President is again calling on Congress to enact the Community College Career Fund. We urge Congress to move quickly on this proposal to help spur economic growth and prosperity," J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community College Trustees said in an email statement.

Community colleges weren't mentioned prominently as in last year's State of the Union speech, but David Baime, senior vice president of government relations & policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges said in an interview today he is encouraged that the administration is supporting the funding proposal although the "odds are long about it being enacted."

As for cooperation between high schools and community colleges, Baime said dual enrollment is widespread and AACC would support a greater federal funding role to expand it.

Obama reviewed the administration's efforts to make college more affordable by renewing the American Opportunity Tax Credit and improving terms of student loans. The new college scorecard, developed by the U.S. Department of Education through its College Affordability and Transparency Center to help families determine "where you can get the most bang for your educational buck," will be officially unveiled today, he said.

As in last year's State of the Union address, he called on college leaders to bring down costs. "Taxpayers can't keep on subsidizing higher and higher and higher costs for higher education," said Obama Tuesday night. "Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it's our job to make sure that they do. "

The Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization this year and Obama suggests Congress include affordability and value when determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.

Documents posted by the White House following the speech gave some additional details about how Obama would like proceed with the legislation. "The President will call on Congress to consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results," according the White House website.

Response from the Center for American Progress was supportive of the President's remarks on higher education. "President Obama outlined a plan that reflects the priorities of the millions of young people who helped reelect him in November. In his speech, Obama gave special emphasis to protecting the promise of higher education," said Campus Progress Director Anne Johnson in a statement. "Two clear proposals were changing the Higher Education Act to tie federal student aid to colleges' efforts to keep costs down and the administration releasing a new College Scorecard to help young people and their parents determine which schools provide the best value."

Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in Washington, said today his organization agrees with the president's broad proposals of investing in education and job training, but will be following how "value" and "affordability" are defined in any possible policy changes.

"We remain concerned about efforts to tie federal student aid to student outcomes until we can correctly identify metrics that won't penalize schools that serve disproportionately high numbers of at-risk and low income students," he said. While the focus is often price to students, new policies should consider the cost of providing education and make sure benchmarks don't penalize schools doing the "heavy lifting" serving at-risk students, says Draeger.

Obama's proposals will face hurdles in Congress from Republicans concerned about the growing deficit and spending more on federal programs. In the Republican response Tuesday night, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, from Florida, spoke of limited regulations, smaller government, and lower taxes.

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