Former Obama adviser touts president’s efforts to make education affordable

DNC official participates in Hispanic Student Union roundtable at Rancho High School


Tovin Lapan

Democratic National Committee senior adviser for Hispanic Affairs Juan Sepulveda addresses the Hispanic Student Union after school at Rancho High School Tuesday, April 24, 2012. Sepulveda trumpeted President Barack Obama’s programs to help students pay for college as the president campaigns for Congress to extend a reduced interest rate for federal student loans that is set to expire in July.

Wed, Apr 25, 2012 (2 a.m.)

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Isaac Barron, a teacher at Rancho High School and the faculty adviser for the Hispanic Student Union, told a group of students Tuesday that if it weren't for Pell Grants he may have never made it through college. "I don't think anyone should be turned away because of cost," he said.

A roundtable discussion Tuesday about the affordability of higher education took on a decidedly pro-Democratic feel, and with good reason: The panel for event, sponsored by Rancho High School’s Hispanic Student Union, included a senior national Democratic Party adviser but no similar Republican Party counterweight.

Isaac Barron, faculty adviser for the Hispanic Student Union, said the group invited Juan Sepulveda, Democratic National Committee senior adviser for Hispanic Affairs, to address the group after school because he represented a role model as a Rhodes Scholar with multiple advanced degrees.

The overwhelming message of the discussion was that Democrats and President Barack Obama would do more to make college affordable and accessible than presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and the Republicans.

Edith Fernandez, director of student success initiatives at the College of Southern Nevada; Rancho High School senior Debbie Rios; and Barron joined Sepulveda, who previously served under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, on the panel.

A group of approximately 20 students listened to the speakers tout Obama’s efforts to make post-secondary education easier to obtain, including the “pay as you earn” program that allows borrowers to cap payments on their student loans at 10 percent of the earnings, increasing Pell Grants and investments in minority-serving institutions (schools with a certain percentage of minority students).

“I’m a big fan of Obama,” Barron said. “If not for programs like the Pell Grant, I might not have made it through college. I don’t think anyone should be turned away because of cost.”

Not everyone in the room was an Obama booster, though. After opening remarks, Rancho Spanish teacher Maria Cantu-Clair said she and her husband were middle class and earned too much money to qualify for federal grants for their child attending Brown University.

Cantu-Clair said Obama promised much and delivered little in his first term.

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Rancho High School senior and Hispanic Student Union President Debbie Rios, 18, addresses a group of students about access and affordability of college. Rios plans to attend UNLV next year, and said she is hoping to use grants and scholarships to pay for the bulk of tuition.

“Obama made a lot of promises and pledges, but those have not come true,” Cantu-Clair said. “My dream is shattered; my dream for change has come down.”

Sepulveda responded, pointing out that Obama instituted the American Opportunity Tax Credit to help middle-class families paying for college and still supported the Dream Act.

“We need a few Republicans to be on board with us,” Sepulveda said, adding that Senate Republicans blocked the bill in 2010. “We can’t do it ourselves; 100 percent of Democrats won’t get it done.”

Elsa Barnhill, Nevada director of Hispanic outreach for the Republican National Committee, was not at the roundtable but said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening there was plenty of reasons for Hispanics to be upset with Obama.

“President Obama has broken his promises to Nevada’s Latino community on every topic under the sun,” Barnhill said. “From fixing the economy to improving education, Obama has failed Latinos. Nevada’s Latino community deserves better; they deserve someone who will follow through on their promises and actually begin fixing the economy.”

Marcos Mata, 18, Hispanic Student Union vice president, said he was frustrated with the lack of progress on the Dream Act and other Obama proposals but that he supported the president.

“I think a lot of Hispanics feel that way: frustrated,” said Mata, who plans to be the first in his family to attend college. “A lot of Latinos will say Obama hasn’t done anything. I think he has done a lot, but that hasn’t gotten attention. Only the negative comes out.”

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