In address, Obama calls for reduced college costs

By Allana Akhtar, Daily Staff Reporter
and Jack Turman, Daily Staff Reporter
and Shoham Geva, Daily News Editor
Published January 21, 2015

President Barack Obama gave his seventh State of the Union address Tuesday evening before a Senate and House controlled by the Republicans for the first time during his presidency.

The president’s speech touched on several key issues from his years in office, including conflict in the Middle East and the economic recession. He expanded on proposed reforms in several areas announced by the White House in the weeks leading up to the address as well.

Chief among his reforms were proposals to impact the price of paying for college as part of an overarching theme addressing “middle-class economics.”

“Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change,” Obama said. “That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement — and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.”

In the address, Obama specifically stressed a plan announced earlier in the week to simplify and consolidate the American Opportunity Tax Credit, an 2009 initiative that gives low and middle class families tax benefits on higher education costs. Though the AOTC is set to expire by 2017 under the current tax plan, Obama said he hopes to make it a permanent feature of the tax code, with the amount of credit adjusted to keep up with inflation.

The president also proposed making it easier to apply for tax credits, as well as require colleges and universities to provide students with information on federal student aid, like AOTC and Pell grants.

The combined impact of the president’s tax benefit proposals would provide students with $2,500 in educational aid per year for up to five years, according to a White House release.

Along with tax credits, the president also touched on a proposal announced earlier this month: to make two years of community college free for most students.

“By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education,” Obama said. “Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future.”

Students across the political spectrum at several watch parties Tuesday evening all expressed enthusiasm for the college-related proposals.

LSA sophomore Daniel Karr, president of the University’s chapter of Common Sense Action, said the discussion of higher education costs and community college affordability were key parts of Obama’s speech.

“They are both policies that will make the U.S. more competitive in the global economy and will specifically help millennials,” Karr said. “One of the most important issues he addressed was reducing the debt burden that college students face.”

LSA senior Trevor Dolan, president of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, also said the policy was a big step forward for economic revitalization in the United States.

LSA senior Gabe Leaf, president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans said Obama’s plan for free two-year community college is unlikely within two years, yet Obama pushed it in effort to gain public support and approval.

“He can get the PR out of it without having to really work through the rest of the plan,” Leaf said.

In an interview after the speech, Communications Assistant Prof. Josh Pasek said though the president attempted to find bipartisan support on issues like his community college proposal, conservatives will view the initiative as a predominantly Democratic issue. He said the GOP would instead view the proposal as a “tax burden” and therefore in direct opposition to their core values.

“Right now, at a moment, there is very little that the parties are willing to have serious discussions on,” Pasek said.

Obama also pushed for several other economic measures, including paid sick days, pay equity between men and women and a raise to the minimum wage, all ideas he’s pushed for throughout his tenure.

“These ideas won’t make everybody rich, or relieve every hardship,” Obama said. “That’s not the job of government… but things like child care and sick leave and equal pay; things like lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage — these ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families.That is a fact.”

In an interview after the speech, Michael Heaney, assistant professor of organizational studies, said these kinds of economic issues, such as minimum wage and pay equity for women, are core Democratic principles that are often reiterated despite GOP opposition.

“The Democratic agenda just always persists,” Heaney said. “Something like paid sick leave for women is something that the United States stand behind most other developed countries. So it’s the kind of thing (where) you have strong resistance to these kind of policies, but if you support them, you have to keep pushing them.”

Along with economic issues, the president also called for several significant foreign policy shifts, namely a resolution from Congress to authorize force against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a terrorist group.

He also touched on recent moves his administration has made to improve diplomatic relations with Cuba, namely making it easier for Americans to travel there, and called upon Congress to fully remove the United State’s trade embargo against the country.

Heaney said Obama’s decision to talk about Cuba was a political maneuver.

“I think that a number of people see that as an accomplishment for the Obama administration,” he said. “He definitely wants to remind people he did that.”

In response to the State of the Union address at large, Aaron Kall, the University’s director of debate and an expert on election politics, said many of Obama’s initiatives would not pass through Congress. However, he said the fact the president outlined such bold reforms would introduce the topic to legislatures and citizens for debate.

“The president used the speech tonight that was roughly watched by tens of millions of people to start this conversation and this dialogue,” Kall said. “And so if there were to be some room for compromise, things would look differently.”

Katie Penrod and Jing Jing Ma contributed to this report.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misquoted Kall as saying tens of thousands of people viewed the State of the Union.