Remarks of Senator Barack Obama
Town Hall on College Affordability
June 17, 2008
As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Marilyn. It isn’t right that you’re working so hard and struggling so much just to pay your college tuition, and that’s why we’re 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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, Michelle’s 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 didn’t 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 we’d save for school for our girls.
It’s 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 who’ve 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 can’t 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 can’t achieve your potential because you can’t afford it; where 2 million qualified students will pass up college this decade because they can’t afford it.
Now, this isn’t an issue you’ll 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. It’s not just that he doesn’t have a real plan to make college affordable; it’s that he’s 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, that’s not the kind of change that people here in Michigan are looking for. That’s not the kind of change that will strengthen our middle class and make America more competitive.
And that’s why the American people will have a clear choice in November – because when I’m President, I will make college affordable for every American. To reach that goal, I’ve 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, we’re going to ask you to invest in the future of your country. To receive this credit, we’ll require 100 hours of public service – you’ll have to work at a veteran’s 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 – that’s how we’re going to move this country forward; that how we’re going to come together behind a common purpose.
We also have to reform the system that governs how student loans are handed out. Recently there’s 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 we’ve 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 hasn’t 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.
That’s why I’ve called for strengthening our federal student loan programs. In an Obama administration, we’ll stop giving subsidies to banks that can just walk away from students in tough times. And we’ll stop tolerating a system where private lenders can discriminate against students at community colleges. Instead, we’ll 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, I’ll make sure we keep pace with costs so that students like some of you here today don’t fall behind. We also need to simplify the process. You shouldn’t need a PhD to apply for financial aid, but the process is so complex that it shuts out hundreds of thousands of students. So I’ll 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, America’s community colleges must be at the forefront of our approach to higher education and economic competitiveness. Eighty percent of America’s 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.
That’s why I’ll 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 won’t just encourage schools to move in this direction – we’ll 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 couldn’t come together to lower the cost of college and extend the promise of our community colleges. It’s 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.