President Barack Obama announced a major plan to cut the rising cost of college tuition this past week during his college affordability bus tour on Aug. 22 and 23, 2013 to upstate New York and Pennsylvania, where he gave speeches, held a town hall meeting, and visited local sites and restaurants. The President continued selling his plan in his weekly address that was made available on the White House website on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013. This latest plan to make college education more affordable is a part of the President's summer better bargain economic tour highlighting his successes with the economy and promoting plans to help the middle class.
The President's plan to curb the rising cost of a college education, reduce graduate debt and make loans repayment easier is three fold. First, create a new university ranking system to be introduced in 2015 based on value, where federal aid to colleges will correspond to the college or universities ranking position, those who keep the tuition costs lower and give the most aid, will receive more funding. Second the plan will promote "innovation and competition" in teaching and course options in colleges and universities that would keep costs down. Third, make repayment of student loans coincide with post-college wages; capping payments at 10 percent of graduates' earnings each month, and let students know there are flexible options for loan repayment.
President Obama launched his tour on Thursday, Aug, 22, at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York in Buffalo, New York where he formally presented his plan to the 7000 people in attendance at the basketball arena. The President told the audience; "Bottom line is this. We've got a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt. Higher education cannot be a luxury. It's an economic imperative. Every American family should be able to afford to get it." Obama emphasized; "It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future."
Obama explained the rational for his plan, saying; "At a time when a higher education has never been more important or more expensive, too many students are facing a choice that they should never have to make: Either they say no to college and pay the price for not getting a degree -- and that's a price that lasts a lifetime -- or you do what it takes to go to college, but then you run the risk that you won't be able to pay it off because you've got so much debt."
The President's major point in his speech, the tour and plan was "We can't price the middle class - and everybody working to get into the middle class - out of a college education."
The format for the rest of Obama's speeches on the bus tour was relatively the same, discussing the economy, his successful policies, his better bargain for the middle class policy plan, and the three steps in his college affordability plan.
Later in the day he spoke at Henninger High School in Syracuse, New York which was full to the maximum, where he started by telling the crowd of parents, students, teachers, administers and local government representatives; "So I'm here on a road trip through New York into Pennsylvania." The President thanked the students attending from the five local high schools telling them; "I especially want to thank the students because I know that you're still on summer vacation. You've got a few more days. So taking the time to be here when you've still got a little bit, that last little bit of summer break, that's a big deal, and I'm very honored to be here with you." He then delved in to discuss his plan.
On the second day of his tour on Friday, Aug. 23, the President held a town hall meeting at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York; he took questions from the public which included students, parents and faculty members, this broadened the topics covered. Obama in general discussed his college cost cutting plan, and various other economic issues affecting the middle class. The President was also selling his plan versus the Republican Congress in the soon to be budget showdown that will occur this fall.
Obama stated his views on the larger debate; "We don't have an urgent deficit crisis. The only crisis we have is one that's manufactured in Washington, and it's ideological. When we get back to Washington, when Congress gets back to Washington, this is going to be a major debate. It's the same debate we've been having for the last two years." The President concluded that "What we should really be thinking about is how do we grow an economy so that we're creating a growing, thriving middle class and we're creating more ladders of opportunity for people who are willing to work hard to get in the middle class." Obama inserted a warning to the Republican Congress about shutting down the government over the budget in the fall.
The President also put himself into the controversial debate over law school programs, and the number of years they should be. Obama knowing he was stepping into a divisive debate, said; "This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck. I'm in my second term. Law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years. In the first two years, young people are learning in the classroom. Obama concluded on that topic, tying it into his plan; "The third year, they'd be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren't getting paid that much. But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student."
Along the way President Obama made some unannounced stops to speak to locals at restaurants, historic sites and a soccer field. On his first day in New York, Obama visited the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and purchased two copies of the July 1848 convention's Declaration of Sentiments for his daughters. Since Monday is Women's Equality Day, the President presented the center with a copy of Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, and his remarks along with a personal message. He later had lunch with Education Secretary Arne Duncan at Magnolia's Deli & Café in Rochester, N.Y., where they spoke to students, recent graduates and faculty about the president's college plan.
On his second day in Pennsylvania, Obama made a stop with Sen. Bob Casey at Bingham's Restaurant in Lenox, Pa. for a "Coconut cream pie." Upon entering the President casually stated; "Hello, everybody. I hear you've got the best pie… That's the word on the street." Before leaving, Obama spoke with the shop's owner and some of the locals. He later stopped at Tully Central High School soccer field to speak to the students who were practicing, and joined in playing with the boys team.
Obama capped his tour off speaking in the afternoon at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania where he was joined by Vice President Joe Biden, who hails from the town. Both the President and Vice President spoke at the last stop of the tour. Obama emphasized the relation of both his economic plan for the middle class and his one to cutting the cost of college tuition saying; "If you get some kind of higher education -- whether it's a 2-year degree, a 4-year degree, a technical college -- you're more likely to have a job. You're more likely to see your income going up. More than ever before, some form of higher education is the surest path into the middle class, and the surest path that you stay there." Concluding President Obama stated; "Our national mission is not to profit off student loans; our national mission must be to profit off having the best-educated workforce in the world."
To summarize his message to the rest of the American public, the President devoted his weekly address released on Saturday morning, Aug. 24, to his higher education plan. The President again outlined his three pronged plan, saying; "We cannot price the middle class out of a college education. That's why I proposed major new reforms to make college more affordable and make it easier for folks to pay for their education." He concluded; "These reforms won't be popular with everybody. But the path we're on now is unsustainable for our students and our economy. Higher education shouldn't be a luxury, or a roll of the dice; it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford."
The Republican National Committee criticized Obama's tour calling it the "Lame Duck Bus Tour" with RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski issuing a statement for the party on the President's tour and plan, stating; "Obama's record with youth is wrought with failures from college costs to student loan debt, and his economy has made it difficult for young Americans to prosper."
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is the top ranking Republican in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee disapproved of the government interfering in high education, saying; "Washington needs to be careful about taking a good idea for one state and forcing all 6,000 institutions of higher education to do the exact same thing, turning Washington into a sort of national school board for our colleges and universities."
While Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who serves as the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce also released a statement that was predominantly critical of the ranking system, saying; "While I am pleased the president’s new plan recognizes the importance of promoting innovation and competition in higher education, I remain concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage -- and even lead to federal price controls."
Since Wednesday, July 24, 2013, President Obama has embarked on a jobs and economic inequality tour for his better bargain for the middle class plan that was launched at a Knox College speech that refocused his economic vision for the remainder of his term with an emphasis on jobs creation and improving the position of the middle class. His tour also took him to Florida and Missouri where he spoke about the economy.
As part of his tour on July 30, Obama unveiled a plan in Chattanooga, TN, trying to persuade the Republicans to agree with it in order to avoid a budget showdown this fall. Obama's "grand bargain" proposed lower corporate taxes in exchange for the Republicans supporting a middle class job creation program which would include an increase funding for infrastructure projects around the country, programs to boost manufacturing and training programs. The plan was the first concrete proposal Obama announced since beginning his economic tour.
President Obama then announced his mortgage reform plan in a speech at Desert Vista High School in Pheonix, Arizona on August 6, 2013. The plan included ending government run Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's role in mortgages and shifts the burden on the private sector to the banks. The stop in Arizona was the fifth in his summer economic tour highlighting his successes with the economy and promoting plans to help the middle class.
President Obama is looking to gain support for his economic program in advance of his battles with the Republican Congress this fall over the federal budget and raising the debt level. He needs public support as leverage to push Congress into agreeing with his plans for both issues.
In appealing to the middle class, and a majority of the population the President believes the Republican Congress will think twice a year before the midterm elections before alienating their constituents and risk losing control of Congress. However, the President's approval rating is not that promising, Gallup has his approval rating at 47 percent and disapproval at 46 percent. Still it remains a toss-up, similar economic plans and tours have not resulted in success for the President the showdown in this fall will tell the results of President Obama's continuing economic sales pitch.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.