Obama outlines proposals to make college affordable

On Thursday, President Obama forcefully brought the issue of student loan debt before an overflow crowd at the University of Buffalo’s Alumni arena. Over 7,000 people filled the 6,000-seat stadium. (See video of speech at end of story.)

“Higher education cannot be a luxury  – it is an economic imperative,” Obama declared. “Every American family should be able to afford to get it.”

And yet most cannot afford it:  the cost of college tuition is a crisis that almost every student faces.

Previous generations didn’t have to deal with this problem. The Buffalo News reports, “In recent years Obama said, there has been a striking rise in the cost of tuition, which has been outpacing wages – with states spending less, and families taking out more loans.”

In fact, Obama said college costs have risen 250 percent in the last 30 years while family wages have risen only 16 percent during the same period.

Ever escalating costs create a vicious cycle of associated problems.  Rising debt for example, is slowing down graduates obtaining degrees. Because of the overwhelming cost, instead of students attending all of the classes they need, they only take the classes they can afford. This prolongs their education, which simultaneously prolongs the time needed to enter the workforce.

Obama said, “Our economy can’t afford the $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, much of which may not get repaid because students don’t have the capacity to repay it.”

To really put things into perspective, look at the president’s own personal situation. He and Mrs. Obama just paid off their debt nine years ago. Imagine: they have been paying off their college debt longer than Obama’s entire political career!

Today, the average debt for a student is $26,000, almost the equivalent to the average salary of minimum wage worker.

How did we get to a point to where a college graduate’s debt is a minimum wage worker’s salary? Why are we seeing people fall victim to overwhelming costs on services that used to be so affordable that they were dang near free?

Obama put it this way, “We can’t price the middle class and everybody working to get into the middle class out of higher education.”

In Buffalo, the president proposed a three step policy to begin to address these issues: a ratings system to measure how efficient colleges are in working to keep tuition costs down; more innovation and competition among schools; and helping students manage their loan debt.  

The rating system would by 2015 measures schools on issues like ” tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend.” Financial aid would based in part on these rankings.

Under the president’s proposal student debt would be capped at ten percent of discretionary income.  

After the president’s speech, criticism from the right was fast to come. Rep. Ron Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said he is “concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage, and even lead to federal price controls.”

The Republican National Committee branded Obama’s latest trip as a “Lame Duck Bus Tour” with little substance.

Students, educators and parents however are likely to rally around Obama’s higher education initiatives. While no policy or legislation is perfect, the White House’s proposals are an important start.

In order for it to have a chance at passing however, Congress has to be lobbied and lobbied hard. Many on the right may reject the president’s plan, but bringing our voices to the floor will at least show the nation stands behind solutions and not inaction.

As Bill Nowak of the Sierra Club said on Thursday in Buffalo “The president and governor can only do what mass movements allow them to do. A lot of our friends are going in there (to hear Obama),” he said. “He needs people to stand behind him.”

On Friday, Obama will speak at the State University of New York at Binghamton before concluding the trip at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Penn., where he will be joined by Vice President Biden.  

The president is on the right track. We know that there needs to be a fundamental change and Obama knows this as well: “Our national mission is not to profit off student loans” the president stressed. “Our national mission must be to profit off having the best-educated workforce in the world.”

An educated workforce is key to the liberation of the workforce period. Because knowledge is power, the working class needs to possess and use it so that it may become the power that restructures the nation back to a society that works for it and not the few at the top.

Photo: President Obama speaks to students, faculty and families at the University of Buffalo, Aug. 22, on a plan to make college affordable. (White House)