updated 6/29/2004 1:18:33 PM ET 2004-06-29T17:18:33

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry says if he’s elected president, 1 million more students will graduate from college during his first five years in office and he will bring a special focus to boosting opportunities for low-income and minority students.

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Kerry’s campaign says nearly half the hike in graduation rates will come from population increases, and he’ll achieve the other half by bringing down the cost of education and creating other incentives to bring students to college and keep them there.

“We need to move toward the day when four years of college is as universal and affordable as a high school education is today,” Kerry told the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition. He said although college graduates will earn $900,000 more over their careers, less than a third of all Americans and less than a fifth of black Americans have a four-year degree.

Nearly 10 million students are expected to earn bachelor’s and associate’s degrees over the next five years, according to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics. That means Kerry is promising to oversee a 10 percent increase in people earning degrees.

Kerry has already promised to increase college enrollment by 1.5 million students in five years.

Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry’s pledges to increase enrollment and graduation are “empty promises.” Schmidt noted that Kerry already has said he’ll have to scale back some of his earlier education funding proposals because of the growing deficit.

Schmidt also pointed to a USA Today article published Monday that showed that what students pay for tuition has fallen in recent years because of increases in financial aid. Kerry often tells voters that tuition rates have gone up during Bush’s presidency, making it harder for average American families to get by.

Kerry was announcing his goal at two civil rights gatherings on Tuesday — first in the morning at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in Chicago and later in the afternoon at the National Council of La Raza in Phoenix.

Kerry has been seeking minority support for his campaign, but some black and Hispanic leaders have expressed disappointment with aspects of his campaign, including a shortage of minorities in key campaign leadership roles.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said when it comes to Hispanics in decision-making positions in the presidential race, “I don’t think either campaign has done well enough to date, frankly.” Vargas was speaking after Kerry addressed NALEO on Saturday.

Emphasis on minority enrollment
Kerry’s education plan has a particular emphasis on supporting minority enrollment in college. He would require colleges to report to parents and students annual data on the number of minority, low-income and middle-income students enrolling and graduating.

Kerry says he’ll make a special push to encourage students to study math, science and technology by spending $100 million more annually on scholarships for those fields and $20 million more than Bush requested to spend this year on programs in those areas at colleges with large minority enrollment.

Money for those programs would come from Kerry’s plan to auction off the broadcast spectrum, which he announced last week, his campaign said.

Kerry says he will divide a $100 million incentive fund among colleges that increase graduation rates of low-income students receiving Pell Grants. And he says he’ll offer $10 billion in federal relief for states that commit to keep tuition increases at or below the rate of inflation for two years.

Helping to promote Kerry’s plan to increase enrollment in math and science programs are former astronaut Sally Ride and his daughter Vanessa, a student at Harvard Medical School. Vanessa Kerry told reporters Monday that her dad encouraged her to enter the sciences and she can attest that it is one of his core beliefs that more women should do so.

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