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Obama Speaks on Campus, Making UB History

The president unveils a bold, new plan to make higher education affordable for all

By David J. Hill

Speaking before an audience of thousands at UB’s Alumni Arena on Thursday, President Barack Obama announced a plan he said would “shake up the system” and make college more affordable for middle-class students.

The president spoke about the need for all students to be able to afford higher education, which he called “the best ticket to upward mobility” in American society.

“We understand that in the face of greater and greater global competition in a knowledge-based economy, a great education is more important than ever. A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future,” Obama told the standing-room-only crowd.

The president’s visit was a highly anticipated event. He is the first sitting U.S. president to speak on campus since Millard Fillmore did so in 1853, at which time Fillmore was also the university’s chancellor.

In his address to the nation, Obama said tuition at the average four-year public university has increased by more than 250 percent in the past three decades, while the typical family income has risen just 16 percent, a disparity that has forced many students and their parents to take out loans to finance college.

Many families are struggling to pay back those loans, the president noted, adding that the average student borrower owes more than $26,000 after graduating.

“The bottom line is this: We’ve got a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt,” Obama said before outlining his plan to counter this trend. “Today I’m proposing major new reforms that will shake up the current system, create better incentives for colleges to do more with less and deliver better value for students and their families.”

Some of the reforms Obama is proposing will require action from Congress, while others can be enacted through the executive branch. Obama’s plan includes:

  • Implementing a new rating system before the 2015 academic year that rewards colleges and universities for performance. The rating system would allow students and their families to select schools that provide the “best value.”
  • Tying financial aid to college performance. Under this plan, students who receive federal aid would not receive assistance for the next semester’s courses until they have completed their current coursework.
  • Promoting innovation and competition among the nation's universities by offering students a greater range of study options, including online courses.
  • Easing the burden of student loan debt by allowing all borrowers to cap loan payments at 10 percent of monthly income.

“At a time when a higher education has never been more important or more expensive, too many students are facing a choice that they should never have to make: Either they say no to college and pay the price for not getting a degree — and that's a price that lasts a lifetime — or you do what it takes to go to college, but then you run the risk that you won’t be able to pay it off because you've got so much debt. Now, that’s a choice we shouldn’t accept,” the president said.

ARE YOU PART OF THE STORY?

UB STUDENT INTRODUCES OBAMA

Before a crowd of thousands, a UB sophomore welcomes President Barack Obama to the university and Western New York

crowd

Until Thursday, Silvana C. D’Ettorre had never given a public speech.

That changed in a big way as the University at Buffalo sophomore and Grand Island native stood before thousands of people in Alumni Arena and welcomed President Barack Obama to Western New York.

“I never imagined myself doing this,” D’Ettorre, an exercise science major who plans to enroll in UB’s School of Dental Medicine, said prior to her speech.

With roughly 29,000 students spread over three campuses, UB is New York’s largest public research university. D’Ettorre said her initial concerns about being “lost in the crowd” were quickly allayed after joining UB’s Undergraduate Academies, which place like-minded students together with faculty and staff to enhance their academic and personal growth.

“I never envisioned myself being so involved here,” she said. “It’s been a great experience.”

D’Ettorre, who met with UB administrators on Wednesday to discuss her speech, later returned to her residence hall room to prepare. “I’m extremely nervous,” she said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. I feel like I’m representing UB, Buffalo, my family — it’s incredible.”

WAITING TO SEE THE PRESIDENT

Enthusiastic ticket-holders lined up for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

David Carlone knew there would be a line to see President Barack Obama speak at UB Thursday.

What he didn’t anticipate was its length — about a mile long, stretching west from Alumni Arena, past Capen Hall, around the Natural Sciences Complex to Capen’s other side and then all the way back to Park Hall.

“I was kind of hoping there’d be a separate student entrance,” Carlone, a master’s student in geology, said half-jokingly at the end of the queue.

No such luck. But the line moved forward, allowing 7,200 students, faculty, staff and community members into Alumni Arena to see the first sitting U.S. president speak at UB since Millard Fillmore in 1853.

Despite the wait (up to four hours for some), the atmosphere was mostly calm and friendly. As the line snaked past souvenir hawkers, protesters, television cameras, Secret Service agents and student volunteers wearing lime green shirts, friends brought each other refreshments while others snapped pictures or texted on smartphones. A few took the time to talk to us about their hopes and expectations for the speech.

high school graduates
Jessica Marshall (left) and Laura Gagliano

Laura Gagliano and Jessica Marshall, both recent graduates of Williamsville East High School, waited seven hours on Tuesday to secure general admission tickets to the event.

“It’s exciting because we are the students that the president plans to talk about,” said Gagliano, who will study communications this fall at John Carroll University.

community member
Marion Grace

Marion Grace of Williamsville voted for Obama, volunteered for his campaign, donated money toward it and attended his inauguration in Washington, D.C. Suffice it to say, she is a fan.

Asked what Thursday’s event meant to her, Grace replied, “It’s special. He’s the greatest president. He really represents the people of this country and the people of this world.”

UB graduate student
Max Mertel

Max Mertel, originally from the Rochester area, is a graduate student in communication at UB.
“I’m feeling comfortable. I’m feeling excited. It’s a good atmosphere and a good crowd,” he said.

UB student
Jesse Mallen

Having already earned an English degree from UB, Jesse Mallen is now working toward a degree in computer science.
He said he hopes Obama will address matters of privacy, such as the recently disclosed information that the N.S.A. has been conducting surveillance of U.S. citizens.

UB graduate student
David Carlone

David Carlone, the geology master’s student, said this is an opportunity he simply couldn't pass up.
“I’d like to be able to tell people that I saw Obama,” he said.

VIEW SLIDESHOW FROM OBAMA'S VISIT

SEE THE FULL RECORDING OF OBAMA’S SPEECH

FOLLOW OBAMA'S VISIT ON FACEBOOK

LISTEN TO THE STORY ON NPR

UB at a Glance
campus
The University at Buffalo

UB is the largest university in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. We are a premier, research-intensive public institution and a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU).

Founded: 1846

Location: Three campuses in downtown and suburban Buffalo.

Enrollment:

  • 28,952 (Fall 2012)
  • 19,506 undergraduate
  • 9,446 graduate and professional

Schools and Colleges: 12

Global Education: UB consistently ranks among the top 20 U.S. campuses in terms of international enrollment. In addition, nearly 11 percent of UB students study abroad — five times the national average.

Alumni:

  • 219,673 in 115 countries (Feb. 2012)
  • More than 121,000 in New York State

Total Research Expenditures: $360 million (FY2012)

Athletics: Division I, Mid-American Conference

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