Obama states goals, answers questions in student-focused teleconference

“We have fallen behind,” President Barack Obama opined during a college-focused teleconference held Monday. “In a single generation we’ve fallen from first to twelfth in college graduation rates for young adults.” Still, the president proclaimed that, with better incentives on the part of the government and a more refined focus on the nation’s future, “by 2020, we once again [can be] number one and have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

“First of all, we’re making college more affordable,” Obama explained. “For example, we’ve changed the way federal student loans are administered.  Instead of handing over $60 billion in unwarranted subsidies to big banks that were essentially getting this money even though the loans were guaranteed by the federal government, we’re redirecting that money so that it goes directly to students.”

“Our second priority,” continued Obama, “is making sure that higher education creates a workforce that’s ready for the new jobs of the future.” His current plan is to set up summits to investigate and encourage the roles that community colleges play in developing the workforce. The primary goal of this action is to foster the ability for community college students to get better jobs, though the efficacy and methods for achieving that goal will only be seen after the first summit concludes.

The President then turned his attention to the current college students for his third objective of keeping enrollment rates high. “We’ve done okay in terms of college enrollment rates,”  Obama pointed out, but noted that “[more] than a third of America’s college students and more than half of our minority students don’t earn a degree, even after six years…[T]hat’s a waste of potential, particularly if folks are racking up big debt and then they don’t even get the degree at the end.” His plan is to task the government with finding out the barriers that could cause a person to drop out of college and into unemployment, then doing their best to eliminate those barriers. As evidence they they are not all talk, the President referenced the recent Federal decision to make it possible for post-9/11 veterans and service members to receive in-state tuition regardless of the length of time they have been living in a state.

Obama then opened the floor to questions about his administration’s role in higher education. The first question came from a student at Radford University in southwest Virginia concerning remarks from several of his professors: “I’ve heard some of my professors call our generation the ‘lost generation’ because we’re going to get out of school with a ton of debt due to student loans and [may] not be able to pay them off… [due to the] economy…So I guess my question is, do you think there’s some truth to that?” The President answered that he felt that students would be fine and that, despite a gloomy economic climate, if students have the skills, they will be able to find a job if they put effort into the job search. He continued that under his administration, “a lot of the initiatives that I’ve put in place already — if we’re building infrastructure — not just roads and bridges but also broadband lines — if we’re investing in clean energy — all those things are going to open up new opportunities for young people with skills and talent for the future.” The current administration plans on informing future college students of these opportunities so that they will have “a better sense of what jobs are out there in the future so that people end up gravitating towards the skills and the degrees that they need to get employed.”

After this question, the President acknowledged concerns about the role students will play in politics in the future. Obama emphasized that “you can’t sit it out.  You can’t suddenly just check in once every 10 years or so, on an exciting presidential election, and then not pay attention during big midterm elections where we’ve got a real big choice between Democrats and Republicans.” The President also focused on a new element of the health care system that allows students to remain on their parents policies until they turn 26, long enough for them to get a start beyond their education.

Obama then addressed the question of what the current administration will do about the rising costs of tuition at public universities. The main concern was that while minority groups and lower-class students are benefiting from large amounts of scholarships and grants, very little financial aid is given to middle-class students, which have been hit hard by skyrocketing tuition rates. While Obama admitted that much of this had to do with state-level budgeting, he was resolute that economic growth would benefit the students. “Improving the economy overall is going to be critical,” he said. “That will take some pressure off the states. We also, though, need to work with the states and public universities and colleges to try to figure out what is driving all this huge inflation in the cost of higher education, because this is actually the only place where inflation is higher than health care inflation,” he continued. “[S]ome of [the causes of inflation] are things that are out of the control of the administrators at universities — health care costs being an example.”

The President’s last suggestion for how to tip the cost-benefit scale of college was simple: focus less on frivolous activities and devote those funds to the overall education. “[Students] have to be good consumers, and your parents have to be good consumers, and we’ve got to offer you more information,” he stated. “You should know where your tuition is going.  There should be a pie chart at every university that says, out of every dollar you spend in tuition, here’s where your money is going. And you should have some good understanding of that and be able to make some better decisions as a consequence of that information.”

In closing, Obama reiterated that students will be a strong force in bringing the U.S. back up to its former glory. Echoing many previous points, Obama announced, “It’s going to require us to get involved around critical issues like education and health care and energy and our foreign policy.  And we’re going to have to have vigorous debates, and we’re going to have to hammer out consensus on these issues…so I hope that everybody starts paying attention these last five weeks.  We’ve got an election coming up.  I want everybody to be well informed and to participate.  If you do, then I feel very optimistic about the country’s future.”

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