President Barack Obama held a conference call with college and university journalists Monday to discuss the steps his administration has taken to address the issues facing young Americans, particularly issues surrounding higher education.
“I want to just take a minute to underscore something that is probably going to make as big a difference in our success as a nation as anything we do, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve to strengthen our nation’s higher education system,” Obama said. “Our classrooms, our professors, our administrators, our students—you guys are going to drive future success of the United States.”
Obama admitted that America’s higher education system has fallen behind in the last generation, dropping from first to 12th in college graduation rates for young adults. He proposed that America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 and discussed the policies his administration is implementing to make this happen.
The Obama administration has already changed the way federal student loans are administered, redirecting $60 billion directly to students instead of big banks. He said this step should make college more affordable for nearly 8 million students and families.
The administration has also taken steps to make higher education more affordable by tripling federal investment in college tax credits for middle-class families and raising the value of Pell Grants, which provide need-based assistance to low-income undergraduates.
The president also called on students to finish college and earn a degree, citing that more than a third of America’s college students and more than half of minority student do not earn a degree.
“That’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,” he said. “They still have to pay back that debt, but they’re not in a stronger position to be able to service it.”
However, the president said his administration could play a part in removing the barriers that present students from earning a degree. Obama has proposed a college access and completion fund, which would develop and implement new approaches to improving college success and completion.
He also voiced his support for the DREAM Act, which would give young undocumented Americans the chance to obtain legal status either by pursuing higher education or serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
When asked what his administration is doing to help recent graduates who are leaving college with major debt and facing difficult economic times, Obama admitted that young Americans are “going through a slightly tougher period,” but said this doesn’t mean their dreams will be constrained in the future.
“The key is for us to keep on improving the economy, and that’s going to be my number one priority over the next several years,” Obama said. “If the economy is growing, if we’re investing in small businesses so they can open their doors and hire more workers, if we’re helping large businesses in terms of plants … 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.”
In addition, the Obama administration has worked to ensure that after graduation, students will not be plagued with excessive debt by making sure they do not have to pay back more than 10 percent of their salary each month in service of student loans. Those students who choose to go into public service will have their debt forgiven after 10 years if they keep up with their payments.
Furthermore, the president has sought to provide relief to recent graduates, who may be looking for their first job, with the Affordable Care Act, which allows young adults to stay on their parents’ health care plans until they are 26 years old.
The president closed by reminding young Americans of the need to stay engaged in politics, especially with the midterm elections this fall.
With the Republicans introducing their Pledge to America, which would call for $4 trillion worth of tax breaks, $700 billion of those going to millionaires and billionaires, the president said there are going to be big choices to make with big consequences in the upcoming midterm elections. According to the president, to pay for even part of the Republican tax breaks, the government would need to cut back its education assistance through higher education by 20 percent.
“What I want to do is just to go speak to young people directly and remind them of what I said during the campaign, which was change is always hard in this country,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. You take two steps forward, you take one step back … And the point is, though, 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 acknowledged that young Americans, who are coming of age in difficult economic times, will face enormous challenges that may be solvable but will require them to get involved in critical issues like education, health care, energy, and foreign policy.
“We’re going to have to have vigorous debates, and we’re going to have to hammer out consensus on these issues,” Obama said, “and the energy that you were able to bring to our politics in 2008, that’s needed not less now, it’s needed more now. And 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.”