President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of a college education Tuesday while stressing that the federal government needs to do more to ensure advanced degrees remain affordable.
Obama, speaking to an audience largely made up of students at the University of North Carolina, told the students that higher education is the single most important investment that they could make in their own futures.
"Whether you're here at a four-year college or university, or you're at a two-year community college, in today's economy, there's no greater predictor of individual success than a good education," Obama said. "Right now, the unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree or more is about half the national average."
He added, "The incomes of folks with a college degree are twice as high as those who don't have a high school diploma. A higher education is the clearest path into the middle class."
Obama touched on his own experience and that of his family - a grandfather who went to college on the GI Bill after WWII and a mother who got grants to help her work her way through school - to point out that his experience was similar to that of many of the students in the audience.
"I am only standing here today, Michelle is only who she is today because of scholarships and student loans," he said, also referring to First Lady Michelle Obama. "That gave us a shot at a great education. We didn't come from families of means, but we knew that if we worked hard we'd have a shot."
He added, "This country has always made a commitment to put a good education within the reach of all who are willing to work for it. That's what makes us special. … And that's a commitment we have to reaffirm today in 2012."
Students today, Obama noted, are facing more difficulties in the face of rising tuition and fees combined with fewer grants forcing them to rack up large student loan debts to pay for their educations.
"Americans now owe more on their student loans than they do on their credit cards," he said. "And living with that kind of debt means that this generation is not getting off to the same start [as] previous generations."
He added, "When a big chunk of every paycheck goes towards loan debt, that's not just tough on you, that's not just tough for middle-class families, it's not just tough on your parents -- it's painful for the economy, because that money is not going to help businesses grow."
Obama said that he and the first lady understood the burden that could come with large student loan debts.
"For the first eight years of our marriage, we were paying more in student loans than what we were paying for our mortgage. So we know what this is about," Obama said. "We were lucky to land good jobs with a steady income. …Check this out, all right, I'm the President of the United States [and] we only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago."
He added, in a thinly-veiled swipe at presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, "I didn't just get some talking points about this. I didn't just get a policy briefing on this. Michelle and I, we've been in your shoes. Like I said, we didn't come from wealthy families."
The nation, whether at the state level of keeping subsidies for higher education in place or at the federal level, needs to do more to help ensure the cost of a college education remains in reach for America's students, the president said.
Specifically, Obama called on the students to help pressure Congress to extend a cut in the interest rate for federally backed student loans that is due to expire in July.
"For each year that Congress doesn't act, the average student with these loans will rack up an additional $1,000 in debt -- an extra thousand dollars," he said. "That's basically a tax hike for more than 7 million students across America."
He added, "This shouldn't be a partisan issue. And yet, the Republicans who run Congress right now have not yet said whether or not they'll stop your rates from doubling."
Obama urged the students to contact their members of Congress to urge them to extend the interest rate cut.
"Your voice matters. So stand up. Be heard. Be counted," Obama said. "Tell them now is not the time to double interest rates on your student loans."
He added, "Now is the time to double down on smart investments to build a strong and secure middle class. Now is the time to double down on building an America that lasts."
Later in the day, Obama is scheduled to deliver a similar pitch to students at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Although both events are billed as official duties of the president, many in Washington have interpreted Obama's recent push for the loan legislation as an effort to reconnect with the young voters who turned out in record numbers to help him win the Presidency in 2008.
by RTT Staff Writer
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