Access to an equal and high-quality education is considered by most to be a basic right that ultimately leads to a more stable and financially secure future. As a result, preschool, K–12, and higher education have long been priorities for policymakers. Unfortunately, Congress has yet to improve the oftentimes segregated, unequal, and costly educational opportunities that are currently available to communities, many of which boast a growing proportion of low-income or underrepresented minority youth. In order to provide an affordable and quality education to every student in America, President Obama has announced several executive actions as part of his “We Can’t Wait” campaign, which aims to make the pursuit of high-quality education a feasible and universal option for all.

  • In hopes of enforcing higher educational standards and eliminating the student achievement gap, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. The heavily test-based measure, which required that all students be math and reading grade level proficient by 2014, attracted criticism from teachers and administrators—who were at risk of staff changes—and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who considered the act’s mission “utopian.”

President Obama, along with Secretary Duncan, recognized the need for NCLB reform, and in 2011, the administration announced measures that would ease some of the requirements enforced  by NCLB. It was decided that states would be allowed to apply for waivers (and disregard the previously set 2014 deadline) so long as they set in place a plan to ramp up academic standards (with most schools subsequently opting to adopt Common Core state standards), vow to improve the lowest-performing schools, and revisit standards of measuring teacher and principal performance.

  • To honor their service, U.S. military veterans were first made eligible for reduced cost higher education with the passing of the G.I. Bill in 1944. This access to an affordable college degree  continues to be a privilege for newly discharged servicemembers; however, recently the proportion of veterans enrolling in for-profit institutions has substantially increased. This uptick is no doubt due to the aggressive recruiting tactics taken by for-profit institutions—strategies that sometimes even include reaching out to veterans who are still recovering from war wounds. This is problematic due to the lack of oversight and guidance offered by these institutions to veteran students who are at risk of not graduating on time or paying their tuition in a timely manner, therefore putting them at risk of paying additional costs.

To remedy this gross misuse of a quality government program, President Obama put in place new federal guidelines known as “Principles of Excellence” to ensure the processes of recruiting, applying, financing, studying, and graduating from higher education institutions—for-profit and not-for-profit alike—remain satisfactory and regulated. Since their installment in 2012, over 6,000 educational institutions have agreed to adhere to the Principles of Excellence.

  • The demand for a bachelor’s degree level of education has sharply increased in the past fifty years, with nearly six times the number of people now holding a college education since World War II. But as we have become a more educated society, we have also become a society with more individuals living in debt. Due to the exponentially rising cost of higher education, the average student now graduates with almost $35,000 of debt attached to his or her name.

To supplement the federal grant programs enacted by the government, President Obama has instituted several student loan-relief programs by way of memoranda, including “Improving Repayment Options For Federal Student Loan Borrowers” and “Helping Struggling Federal Student Loan Borrowers Manage Their Debt.” Each of these memoranda are meant to provide eligible students with better access to loan repayment resources. These resources and assistance include streamlining aid application processes by creating new websites, evaluating aid eligibility on a more personalized basis, and spreading more awareness of aid opportunities via loan-counseling tools.

  • Starting in 2003, several Supreme Court cases involving educational institutions began to threaten the widespread use of affirmative action as an institutional tool that for decades had provided a  boost to otherwise overlooked admissions candidates and increased the level of diversity in American classrooms of every grade level. These Supreme Court rulings resulted in decisions that severely restricted the use of race as a factor in admissions practices in what defendant institutions claimed were attempts to offer equal and fair opportunities to all applicants. The Bush administration issued two guidance documents, criticized by some for being overly restrictive, which defined how and when race could be treated as a measurable admissions consideration.

In response to these restrictions, in 2011 the Obama administration’s Department of Justice and Department of Education rolled out two new guidance documents (one for postsecondary and one for elementary/secondary education) detailing “race conscious” measures that educational institutions seeking to promote diversity and achieve integration could follow to do so in a legal manner. These measures approved by the Obama administration have defended the practice of considering race as an admissions factor if done so in a way that is narrowly tailored to meet a “compelling interest.”

These executive actions taken by Obama represent a crucial push in the right direction toward the reform needed to improve the education system in America. The fight for making equal and affordable education an option for everyone in the future will require Congress to make expanding educational opportunity a legislative priority.