Morgan hosts White House forum on concerns of African-American community

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A senior White House adviser outlined President Barack Obama's initiatives to make college more affordable and provide assistance to small businesses during an African-American policy forum at Morgan State University on Friday.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, discussed ways the president is trying to address concerns in African-American communities and conveyed his support for historically black colleges and universities. The White House has hosted similar sessions around the country.

During a conversation with radio host Joe Madison, Jarrett told the audience that the president's efforts to make college more affordable — including legislation to prevent interest rates on college loans from doubling and an increase in Pell Grant funding — is rooted in part in the fact that he and first lady Michelle Obama finished paying off their student loans only about eight years ago.

Morgan student Khari Malik, a junior from Waldorf who attended the forum, said of the Obamas paying off their student loans, "It let me know that our president is kind of in touch with the needs of the people in terms of paying stuff back and especially with student loans being as high as they are."

Jarrett said the president is also interested in improving the community college system. "So many people, particularly in the African-American community, rely on the community colleges to get the training they need for job opportunities," she said.

"And all too often," Jarrett said, "our community colleges don't have the curriculum necessary to lead to a job, so we're working with the private sector, which works in partnership with the community colleges, to help design the curriculum so there's actually a real job waiting at the end of the program."

The event also featured a presentation on Social Security as well as a panel discussion that addressed home ownership and minority business development.

Jarrett said the forums stem from an event in November that Obama hosted at the White House, focusing on initiatives central to African-American communities. White House officials have held the forums in cities such as Cleveland and Las Vegas; Jarrett visited Morgan, one of the nation's oldest and largest historically black universities, in part because of its proximity to Washington.

"Many of the initiatives that the president put in place since we began this were suggestions that came through the forum," said Jarrett, citing an executive order that allows small businesses that do work for the federal government to get paid in 15 days, rather than the customary 30 days.

"So many small businesses tell us that they're on shoestring budgets so when they're doing business with the federal government they can't wait 30 days to get paid," Jarrett said. She added that this week, the Small Business Administration announced further steps to pay all contractors within 15 days.

She said that Obama also ordered all agencies to "streamline processes so that they could reduce the amount of bureaucracy and paperwork."

"The other thing that we heard coming out of many of these sessions is that you have to fill out all of this paperwork to do business with the federal government," Jarrett said. "They said, 'Could you simplify that?' People have had to hire people just to comply with all the federal paperwork. Those people could be freed up to do other things."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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