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:
“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.
Before a crowd of thousands, a UB sophomore welcomes President Barack Obama to the university and Western New York
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.”
Enthusiastic ticket-holders lined up for a once-in-a-lifetime
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.