Remarks of Senator Barack Obama
Town Hall on College Affordability
June 17, 2008
As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Marilyn. It isnt right that youre working so hard and struggling so much just to pay your college tuition, and thats why were here today to talk about what we can do to make college affordable and help every American get a college education.
For so many generations, college has been the passport to a better future. My own father like so many immigrants crossed an ocean to reach the promise of an American college education. And like so many kids who didnt come from money or status, a college education is what helped Michelle and me reach a little further than our own parents.
You see, I wasnt born with a lot of advantages. I had a teenage mom and a dad who left us when I was two. But I was given love, and support, and an education that put me on a pathway to my dreams. The same was true for Michelle. She came from a simple, blue collar family on the South Side of Chicago. Even though he had multiple sclerosis, Michelles father went to work every day at the local water filtration plant to support his family. And Michelle and her brother were able to go to a great college, and to reach a little further for their dreams.
Unfortunately, another thing that Michelle and I have in common is that we left school with a mountain of debt. We didnt finish paying off our student loans until just a few years ago. Like a lot of families, we were still dealing with the cost of our own education when we had to start worrying about how wed save for school for our girls.
Its something that plays out in households all across this country the high cost of tuition is making college a dream that is slipping out of reach for far too many Americans. Folks whove been working for years want to go back and get a degree, but they have to choose between going to class and paying the rent. Many young people have the talent to go to school, but cant afford to be saddled with debt. College costs have gone up almost 40 percent in the last five years.
I do not accept an America where you cant achieve your potential because you cant afford it; where 2 million qualified students will pass up college this decade because they cant afford it.
Now, this isnt an issue youll hear Senator McCain talk about that much. Because when it comes to education, Senator McCain is out of touch with the needs of hardworking Americans. Its not just that he doesnt have a real plan to make college affordable; its that hes voted time and time again to stop us from making college affordable. A couple of years ago, he even voted against funding for students so he could protect billions of dollars in corporate tax loopholes. Well, thats not the kind of change that people here in Michigan are looking for. Thats not the kind of change that will strengthen our middle class and make America more competitive.
And thats why the American people will have a clear choice in November because when Im President, I will make college affordable for every American. To reach that goal, Ive proposed an annual, fully refundable American Opportunity Tax Credit of $4,000 for Americans who need a hand with tuition and fees. This will cover two-thirds of tuition at the average public college or university, and will make tuition free and help cover expenses for students to go to a community college like Wayne County Community College.
But when we invest in your future, were going to ask you to invest in the future of your country. To receive this credit, well require 100 hours of public service youll have to work at a veterans hospital or nursing home; join an AmeriCorps program or work in a local school. You get a hand living your dreams, and then you help your fellow citizens live theirs thats how were going to move this country forward; that how were going to come together behind a common purpose.
We also have to reform the system that governs how student loans are handed out. Recently theres been concern about problems in our credit markets spilling over into student loans. In fact, a number of universities and communities colleges have seen their lenders withdraw from the federal student loan program, including Wayne County Community College. And weve seen some big banks go so far as to continue making loans to students at some 4-year colleges, while denying them to students at community colleges. So far, this hasnt affected students or schools in serious way because other lenders have stepped up and Congress has taken steps to ensure that students have the money they need this fall. But it has been a reminder that we need to make sure students can always get the loans they need.
Thats why Ive called for strengthening our federal student loan programs. In an Obama administration, well stop giving subsidies to banks that can just walk away from students in tough times. And well stop tolerating a system where private lenders can discriminate against students at community colleges. Instead, well require all federal student loans to be provided directly by the federal government. This one step will help protect students, restore fairness to the system, and save billions of dollars a year.
We also need to make sure our current assistance keeps pace with costs. The first bill I introduced in the Senate aimed to increase the maximum Pell Grant. And we went on to work in a bipartisan way to get it done. As President, Ill make sure we keep pace with costs so that students like some of you here today dont fall behind. We also need to simplify the process. You shouldnt need a PhD to apply for financial aid, but the process is so complex that it shuts out hundreds of thousands of students. So Ill eliminate the current student aid form altogether – we’ll use tax data instead.
As we move forward, we cannot neglect our community colleges. These schools produce the backbone of our workforce: nurses and firefighters, computer programmers and farmers. And as our changing economy demands a more skilled workforce, Americas community colleges must be at the forefront of our approach to higher education and economic competitiveness. Eighty percent of Americas fastest-growing jobs require at least a 2-year degree. You and I know this; businesses know this. Yet for too long, Washington has treated community colleges as a stepchild of the higher education system, instead of essential resources for training and preparing the workers of tomorrow.
Thats why Ill create a new Community College Partnership Program to give you the skills you need to compete. This initiative will help community colleges analyze what skills are needed to prepare students to work in local industry. Here in Michigan, that means making sure that our manufacturing workers can get the training they need to work in green energy jobs and build the cars of the future. And we wont just encourage schools to move in this direction well reward success by providing grants to community colleges that graduate more students, and increase the number of their students who transfer to four-year colleges.
This is fundamental to the future of our country. Our economy is changing at a breathtaking pace. You need different skills to make a good living than you did twenty years ago. As folks in Michigan know all too well, young people today will be competing throughout their lives with people halfway around the world in Beijing and Bangalore, Japan and South Korea.
We cannot let the doors of opportunity close because we couldnt come together to lower the cost of college and extend the promise of our community colleges. Its time to put the American dream within reach for all Americans, regardless of ethnic or economic background. That is our cause in this campaign. And that is the future we can build together if you join me in November.