In his first formal State of the Union address on Wednesday night, President Obama focused on the nation's economic problems but also zeroed in on several issues of concern to higher education, including college costs.
He urged Congress to finish legislation that would restructure federal student lending and proposed a more lenient loan-forgiveness program for graduates with federally subsidized student loans.
"In the 21st century, one of the best antipoverty programs is a world-class education," he said.
And he took colleges to task, chiding them to "get serious about cutting their own costs."
Earlier this week, Mr. Obama proposed a 6-percent increase in federal support for education in his budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which will be released on Monday. Most of the money would go to programs for elementary and secondary schools, but it would mean that the education sector, including higher education, would largely be sheltered from the three-year freeze Mr. Obama proposed for federal spending on discretionary domestic programs.
In contrast with the speech Mr. Obama made about a year ago to a joint session of Congress, in which he set the ambitious goal of the United States' having the world's highest percentage of adults with a college degree by 2020, his address Wednesday night kept higher-education issues mostly out of the spotlight. The president's speech centered more on jobs and the economy, including the steps he believes the country should take to overcome the effects of the recession.
"I do not accept second place for the United States of America," Mr. Obama said. "As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may be, it's time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth."
Appeal for Student-Aid Legislation
He urged Congress to pass the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, HR 3221, which would eliminate the bank-based federal student-loan program and use the billions of dollars in projected savings to expand aid to students and colleges. The House of Representatives passed the legislation in September, but the Senate has not yet begun to debate its version of the measure, which has been delayed by negotiations over health care and potentially complicated by the loss of the Democratic supermajority.
Saying the student-loan bill will "revitalize our community colleges," Mr. Obama urged the Senate to follow the House in approving the measure. "This bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans," he said. "Instead, let's take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and increase Pell Grants."
As the White House had already announced this week, the president also proposed a more-lenient payback plan for federal loans of college graduates who take low-paying jobs. The plan would augment an income-based-repayment program that Congress created in 2007. Under the existing program, eligible borrowers' payments total no more than 15 percent of their discretionary income, and loan balances are forgiven after 25 years of repayment. Mr. Obama proposes lowering the maximum payment to 10 percent of discretionary income, and lowering the time frame for loan forgiveness to 20 years.
Spreading the Blame
"In the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college," Mr. Obama said. "And by the way, it's time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs—because they too have a responsibility to help solve this problem."
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said on Wednesday that the student-loan proposals were evidence of Mr. Obama's support for higher education. Still, she said, she was concerned about the spending freeze.
Limiting increases for discretionary spending for research, she said, would create "disjunctures in the faculty pipeline and serious financial problems on campuses," she said. "That one is near the top of our worry list."
Mr. Obama also touched on a few other issues related to higher education.
He called on Congress to post all earmark requests on a Web site before they come to a vote. In 2008, colleges and universities won at least $2.25-billion in earmarked money from Congress, mostly for research.
He asked for a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the federal statute that requires the military to discharge members who are openly gay. "Don't ask, don't tell" has clashed with some universities' nondiscrimination policies and led to opposition to ROTC programs on other campuses.