Speaking before a bleary-eyed capacity crowd of 4,000 who waited in the wee hours of the morning Friday to secure a prime spot, President Barack Obama stressed the importance of higher education by announcing a handful of new proposals to combat student debt.
During his address at Al Glick Field House, the Michigan football team’s indoor practice facility, Obama unveiled a plan that would allocate $10 billion in federal aid each year to colleges and universities that limit tuition increases. Ann Arbor was Obama’s last stop on a three-day, five-state, trip to follow up on his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
“We are putting colleges on notice — you can’t keep — you can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year,” Obama said. “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.”
Obama also proposed a $1 billion Race to the Top program that would award funding to states that make an effort to continue to fund higher education and limit tuition hikes.
“We’re telling the states, if you can find new ways to bring down the cost of college and make it easier for more students to graduate, we’ll help you do it,” Obama said. “We will give you additional federal support if you are doing a good job of making sure that all of you aren’t loaded up with debt when you graduate from college.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the administration is working to make more resources available to students. The president’s student aid reforms would mostly increase the amount of need-based Perkins Loans available to low-income students.
“We can’t do it by ourselves,” Duncan said. “So we’re going to try to put out a $1 billion tax incentive to states and to colleges to do the right thing. We’re challenging states to continue to invest even in tough times and we’re challenging universities to do two things — keep tuition rates down and increase graduation rates.”
Obama put pressure on Congress to make the American Opportunity Tax Credit — which provides college students with up to $10,000 over four years — permanent, and to double the number of federal work study jobs available to students.
The Obama administration will also boost its efforts to make financial aid information more accessible for families by creating several online tools that provide comprehensive information about what types of aid institutions offer.
“From now on, parents and students deserve to know how a college is doing — how affordable is it, how well are its students doing,” Obama said. “We want you to know how well a car stacks up before you buy it. You should know how well a college stacks up.”
Speaking under an array of Big Ten championship banners and atop a platform placed upon a block ‘M’ on the indoor field, Obama also congratulated the football team on its Sugar Bowl win, calling the team “a force to be reckoned with” under junior quarterback Denard Robinson, who was sitting among congressmen and state officials during the speech.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily before the speech, Robinson said he was impressed with the amount of student support.
“It’s great to see President Obama, I couldn’t miss it,” Robinson said. “A lot of people came out and came to support him.”
After the speech, University President Mary Sue Coleman lauded Obama’s attention to the need for the federal government to collaborate with universities around the nation in an effort to develop efficient policies that minimize student debt and increase accessibility.
“College affordability is extraordinarily important for all of us and I was so pleased that he recognizes the complexity — the fact that the state has a role, the federal government has a role, universities have a role — and all of them have to be working together to make this possible,” Coleman said.
Coleman stressed the need for the state to continue to invest in higher education, particularly following years of repeated cuts in funding allocation to public colleges within the state, including a 15-percent reduction in funding in 2011 under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
“One of the things that (Obama) did point out very clearly was the dramatic disinvestment that the states have made, and one of the most harsh has been in Michigan,” Coleman said. “We have suffered from that, and we’ve done a good job of cutting costs, we’ve continued to try to cut costs but we have to have a reinvestment by the state.”
Coleman added that achieving the goal of effectively working among universities, state governments and the federal government to increase college affordability is going to be challenging, but an endeavor she is optimistic about for the future.
“I think universities should be challenged to find more efficient ways to save money, and we’ve been doing that aggressively at Michigan for the past 10 years and I have no problem finding ways,” Coleman said “… And we’re unwilling to lower quality, because I think what the president said that is important, is that we have the best higher education system in the world. And we do not want to lose that, quality matters.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) said before the speech that investing in higher education is key to augmenting economic conditions in the state, particularly through utilizing its vast recourses in the industrial and technological fields.
“When we talk about the future and the opportunities for us in the technologies in the skilled trades, engineers, science, it doesn’t happen without education and it doesn’t work if, when you get out of school, you’ve got more debt than it would take if you were buying a house,” Stabenow said.
State Sen. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor) said in an interview before the speech that Obama’s message of collaboration amongst all forms of government to decrease student debt and increase accessibility to higher education is crucial.
“The take away is the federal government and the state government can work together to provide as many resources as possible so that our young people who are bright and talented and willing to work hard to go to college have the financial resources to do this.”
Warren added that while it’s too early to tell how the state plans to craft its plans to invest in higher education, she encourages students to get involved and voice their opinions.
“We’ve got to invest in higher education,” Warren said. “What exactly that looks like, I’m open to a lot of different ideas, but I’m looking for as many young, smart people around the table saying what’s the best way to invest resources.”
Engineering junior Dan Caldwell said he didn’t expect Obama have a perfect solution to make college more affordable, but he wants “to feel like (Obama) cares about what’s going to happen to us.”
“They gave a lot of assistance to people when the mortgage crisis happened … I’d like to see that for people coming out of college. That similar assistance will hopefully be given,” Caldwell said. “Obviously, kids coming out of college are the future of the country”
LSA senior Chaim Frenkel said while Obama’s message should resonate with all students, he could personally relate to what the president had to say.
“Student loans are such a pain for all of us and I personally pay eight times the average student loans and it’s definitely going to be something in the future that needs to be amended and moving forward it’s clear that affordable education for all is a necessary part of progressing society,” Frenkel said.
American Culture Prof. Lori Brooks said she waited five hours yesterday morning to get tickets to the speech. Brooks brought her infant son to the speech because she wanted him to see the country’s first African-American president.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my son being educated in this country,” Brooks said, “And I’m hoping that I’ll be looking forward to my son’s educational future.”
— Daily News Editor Haley Goldberg contributed to this report