When U.S. Education Secretary John King asked about 200 Memphis students if they were considering going to college, most raised their hands. And most of those hands stayed up when he asked if they’d be the first in their family to do so.

So, in the spirit of showing students that they can navigate the process to get there, King recruited one high school senior to demonstrate College Scorecard, a tool launched last year by the U.S. Department of Education for students and parents to compare the cost and value of various colleges.

Together, King and Kevin Mathews scrolled through a few of the colleges that the teen from Craigmont High School had his eye on, and explored their tuition, student population, degree programs and graduation rates. Each of the more than 7,000 colleges on the scorecard feature more than 1,700 data points, including gauging whether a student can afford to repay the loans possibly incurred to pursue a degree.

King also highlighted students’ ability to apply for financial aid for college beginning Oct. 1, three months earlier than in previous years, through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This year, parents can use their previous year’s tax returns, cutting the estimated time to complete the form by two-thirds.

The visit — King’s first to Memphis since becoming the nation’s education chief in March — was part of the U.S. Department of Education’s back-to-school bus tour this week through the South to highlight education initiatives of President Barack Obama’s administration.

The streamlined FAFSA process and college comparison tool should cut down on barriers for students already at a disadvantage because of their family income or being a first-generation college student, the secretary said.

“They get discouraged and dissuaded from their dreams,” King said. “They go to the FAFSA and say ‘that’s going to be too complicated to fill out.’ They look at college applications and they say ‘I’m not sure if I can afford that.’”

King also praised Tennessee Promise, which began with the class of 2015 and offers two years of tuition-free community or technical college to the state’s high school graduates. He urged other states to follow suit in the spirit of America’s College Promise, Obama’s tuition-free community college initiative announced in 2015 at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, where King also visited Tuesday on his bus tour.

The comments came on the same day that Los Angeles became the nation’s largest city to announce a plan to make high school seniors within Los Angeles Unified School District eligible for one year of free community college starting in 2017. But such programs are still the exception.

“The challenge is unfortunately in many states, investment in higher education has been flat or declining,” King said.

At a college fair for Memphis students at Craigmont High School, the secretary talked about the challenges of not only getting to college but staying in college when students struggle academically.

“It’s not always going to be easy, and the key is that you have to be willing to ask for help,” he said. “You have to be willing to ask questions and not feel like you have to do it on your own.”

King (at left) watches a teacher perform at Lafayette's Music Room in Midtown Memphis.
King (at left) watches a teacher perform at Lafayette’s Music Room in Midtown Memphis.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

King later stopped by a club in Midtown Memphis to celebrate arts education and speak with music educators at an event hosted by Spotify.

Memphis was the secretary’s final Tennessee stop of his week-long bus tour, which included visits on Tuesday in Bristol, Knoxville and Chattanooga to highlight technology education, America’s College Promise and teacher leadership. The tour also includes stops in Charlottesville, Va.; Harvest, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark.; Indianola, Miss.; and Monroe, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La.

Correction, Sept. 15, 2016: A previous version of this story misstated when Tennessee Promise was launched.