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President Obama visits UB, unveils higher education reforms

President Barack Obama visits UB. August 22, 2013

President Barack Obama spoke to thousands of Western New Yorkers in Alumni Arena. Photo: Douglas Levere

By DAVID J. HILL

Published August 22, 2013

“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.”
President Barack Obama, addressing the nation from UB on Thursday
“We are honored that President Obama chose the University at Buffalo to announce his proposals to make higher education more affordable, reduce college debt and reward schools for their performance in these areas.”
Satish K. Tripathi, UB president

Speaking before an audience of thousands at 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, including those who attend UB.

The president spoke about the need for all students to be able to pay for 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 a packed crowd of 7,200.

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.

Obama chose UB to kick off a two-day swing through New York and Pennsylvania during which he will lay out a plan for addressing the increasing costs of higher education. After delivering his speech in Buffalo, Obama was off to visit a high school in Syracuse. Other stops on the tour include Binghamton University and Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa.

In his address to the nation from Alumni Arena, 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 a college degree.

Many families are struggling to pay for that education, the president noted, adding that the average student loan 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 during his 37-minute speech, adding, “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, while challenging state legislatures to provide more funding for universities that graduate students on time and with low debt. 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. Obama said his administration will also begin heavily promoting this “Pay As You Earn” plan to ensure that struggling borrowers are aware of the options available to them.

“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 whatever 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.

The president’s message was especially pertinent considering Thursday was move-in day for UB freshmen.

“What an amazing way to kick off the fall semester,” said UB President Satish K. Tripathi. “I can’t think of a better introduction to UB campus life.”

Tripathi said that in addition to hosting President Obama, the university was also proud to welcome U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “At UB, we are heeding the secretary’s call to be innovators in our classrooms, our research laboratories and our overall student experience,” Tripathi said.

As a major public research university, UB was honored to serve as the venue for a discussion on such an important topic, Tripathi said, adding, “These issues matter deeply, not only to our nation’s colleges and universities, but to all of us.”

More photos of the President Barack Obama's visit (Photos by Douglas Levere)