Obama Says Students Should ‘Get the Best Skills Possible,’ Quickly and Cheaply

February 06, 2015

Middle-class college students should have more opportunities to "get the best skills possible," as quickly and cheaply as possible, and making community-college tuition free would help achieve that goal, President Obama said on Friday during an address at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis.

Speaking and answering questions from students at the headquarters of one of the nation’s largest statewide community-college systems, the president touted his free-tuition proposal and said that heading straight to a four-year college isn’t for everyone.

"We have this image in our heads that you go through high school and then, right away, you go to a four-year university," he said. "Instead, we should be thinking about, from the time you are in ninth grade until you get a job, how do we make sure you get the best skills possible at the cheapest cost. If there are faster pathways or opportunities to use technology, let’s do that."

After two years, students might have the skills to jump into a job immediately, or they might transfer to a four-year institution, he said, but either way, they would save a significant amount of money by starting at a community college.

Asked whether making community-college tuition free would hurt four-year colleges by cutting into their enrollments, the president said there would still be plenty of students heading straight to baccalaureate institutions.

But students shouldn’t have to take on staggering debts, he said, especially if they’re going into fields, like teaching, that pay modest salaries.

On speculation that his free-tuition plan is dead on arrival in a Republican-controlled Congress, he had this to say: "If Republicans disagree with the way I’m trying to solve these problems, they should put forth their own plans, and I’ll be happy to look at them. But what we can’t do is ignore the problems."

It’s time, he said, for everyone to roll up their sleeves and work together, and "not to turn everything into a Washington food fight."

Mr. Obama said he had talked to many employers who say that they can’t find graduates with the skills they need, and that colleges working closely with area employers can help fill the so-called skills gap.

Some educators have questioned whether that gap is partly the fault of employers who have reduced their commitments to on-the-job training and so shifted more of the responsibility for specialized skills training to community colleges.

Apprenticeship programs, which received an infusion of funds from the administration last year, can be part of the solution, Mr. Obama said. On average, he said, graduates of apprenticeship programs earn $50,000 a year.

He empathized with a student who bemoaned the soaring cost of textbooks and said that, in the first 10 years of his marriage, the Obamas paid more on student loans than on their mortgage.