Obama Calls for Control of College Costs and Renewed Support for Higher Education

Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

President Obama told a crowd of more than 3,000 students at the University of Michigan that "higher education is not a luxury—it's an economic imperative."
January 27, 2012

President Obama brought his campaign for college affordability to a cheering audience of Michigan college students and local residents here on Friday morning, pledging that his administration would be "putting colleges on notice" over rising costs and issuing a call for continued public support for higher education by states so that the United States does not become a nation where education is reserved for the well-to-do.

"It's not the future I want for you," he told the crowd of 3,000, nearly all of whom had camped out for hours in the cold the night before to get tickets and then waited again in the morning darkness on Friday to attend. "It's not the future I want for my daughters.''

Speaking jacketless with his sleeves rolled up and occasionally responding to friendly shoutouts from the crowd at the University of Michigan's Al Glick Field House, Mr. Obama struck many of the same themes as in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, reprising the slogan that, in the 21st century, "higher education is not a luxury—it's an economic imperative."

But on Friday, his 35-minute message was more Michigan-centric—the state is crucial to his re-election—and personal. Without grants and loans, he said, his mother would never have been able to attend college, and neither would he, he said. "I am only standing here today because scholarships and loans gave me a shot at a decent education," said Mr. Obama. "How we keep that promise alive is the defining issue of our time."

He was also mindful of his audience. While greeting Michigan's two U.S. senators, he also took a moment to josh with the university's star quarterback, Denard Robinson, who was seated with the VIP's and was cheered when the president noted that he would be returning to school in the fall. "They're trying to draft you to run for president," Mr. Obama joked.

Hours before the speech, the White House released a package of proposals aimed at pushing colleges and states to make higher education more affordable, effective, and consumer-friendly. "You know how well a car stacks up, you should know how a college stacks up," the president said as he described new programs like the proposed College Scoreboard.

Amber Wolverton, a junior at Michigan from Bay City, Mich., occupied some of the time before the president spoke by sending Facebook updates to her friends, as the University of Michigan pep band blasted out the Fight Song. Ms. Wolverton said she appreciated Mr. Obama's focus on college. "Everybody should be allowed the opportunity to get an education," she said.

Mary Sue Coleman, the university's president, said she was thrilled because the outlines of the Obama plan show that the administration understands "the complexity" of issues, including the role of states and the need for universities to curtail costs. "I'm so happy that he's brought this to a national conversation," said Ms. Coleman, who watched the speech with a group of students standing behind Mr. Obama beneath a banner that declared "An America Built to Last."

While some higher-education policy officials have already raised concerns about Mr. Obama's proposals, Ms. Coleman said she was less anxious. "People are very worried about price controls," she said. "I don't think that's what they're talking about." Rather, she said, the proposals seem to be a challenge: "Are there nuanced ways to incent people to explore?"

Before the speech, Ms. Coleman chatted for a few minutes with Mr. Obama and thanked him for keeping a focus on the need for continued state support of higher education, she said. She also sent him back to Washington with a few lasting reminders of her own institution: The university gave Mr. Obama sweatshirts in Michigan's blue and maize colors for his daughters, Sasha and Malia, and a water bowl for Bo, the Obamas' family dog.