President Barack Obama said in a conference call with students yesterday that he wants to ease financial burdens for college students and increase the quality of higher education across the country.

Obama said that though the nation has slipped in college graduation rates internationally — from first to 12th in a generation — he wants to reclaim the highest graduation rate by 2020 through offering stronger financial aid programs so more students have the opportunity to earn a degree. He said this would ultimately strengthen the ailing national economy by creating a work force that is competitive with that of other nations.

“If we’re serious about building a stronger economy and making sure we succeed in the 21st century, then the single most important step we can take is to make sure that every young person gets the best education possible, because countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow,” Obama said.

Obama said it is crucial that college becomes more affordable for students. He said this can be achieved through increasing funding for need-based Pell Grants, simplifying the financial aid application process and allowing federal loan subsidies to go directly to students rather than through major banks.

“The key here is, is that we want to open the doors of our colleges and universities to more people so they can learn, they can graduate and they can succeed in life,” Obama said.

He also said his administration has emphasized higher education initiatives through stressing programs like the G.I. Bill, which allows funding for veterans to attend college after service. Obama added that the Affordable Care Act, which extends the age that dependents can be covered by a family health insurance plan from 18 to 26 years old, will also make higher education a more viable option for people.

Obama also said colleges need to be cautious of how they allocate funding, and they must ensure money is being used for increasing the quality of learning, rather than on things like facilities and renovations. He said that while faculty research should remain a funding priority, universities and professors should not let research overshadow student needs.

“Part of what I think we’ve got to examine is are we designing our universities in a way that focuses on the primary thing, which is education,” Obama said. “You’re not going to a university to join a spa; you’re going there to learn so that you can have a fulfilling career. And if all the amenities of a public university start jacking up the cost of tuition significantly, that’s a problem.”

Obama said he hopes to work closely with university officials across the nation to grapple with financial issues and find ways to allocate more money to directly improving the educational quality of universities.

Despite lingering fear among college students faced with loan debt that they may not find a job in a difficult job market, Obama said he thinks that this generation of college students will be “just fine,” and that plenty of job opportunities in various fields are awaiting graduates.

“We’ve gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and so things are real tough for young people right now,” Obama said. “But having said that, if you are getting a college degree, if you’ve got skills in math and science or good, sound communication skills, there are still jobs out there even in a tough environment. And nine out of 10 people who are looking for work can still find work.”

Obama said that it is crucial for students to vote in the midterm elections this November, encouraging students to educate themselves about candidates and their policies so that they can elect people who will make important changes.

Obama said students got involved in his campaign for president because they saw it as “a vehicle to get engaged and involved in shaping the direction of this country,” adding that students should view the midterm elections similarly.

“What I want to do is just to go speak to young people directly and remind them of what I said during the campaign, which was change is always hard in this country,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. You take two steps forward, you take one step back.”

“I just want to remind young people, they’ve got to get re-engaged in this process,” Obama added. “And they’re going to have to vote in these midterm elections.”

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