A Look Back: Obama and Higher Ed in State of the Union History

By Allie Bidwell and Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff

President Barack Obama last night delivered his final State of the Union address, calling for an end to the political gridlock and partisan divide that has taken hold of Congress and the country in recent years.

“The future we want – opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids – all that is within our reach,” Obama said in his address to Congress. “But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.”

Overall, the president’s address focused less on his immediate proposals for his last year in office and more on the future of the country over the next decade.

“We live in a time of extraordinary change – change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world,” Obama said, adding, “Our unique strengths as a nation – our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery and innovation, our diversity and commitment to the rule of law – these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.”

While discussing the economy, Obama highlighted the recent improvement but said that “we need to make more,” particularly when it comes to improving income inequality and increasing job growth in a new, technology-based economy.

Repeating his call to “make college affordable for every American, Obama said that “no hardworking student should be stuck in the red.”

“We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower’s income. Now, we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college,” he said. “Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year.”

Throughout the last several years, Obama has used his bully pulpit through the annual State of the Union address to emphasize the importance of higher education.

In the first years of his presidency, the message was more broad and simple: higher education is a necessary step in advancing social mobility, it will help catalyze a struggling economy, and therefore it’s important to make sure completion rates are as strong as possible.

When Obama gave his first State of the Union address in 2009, the nation was in the depths of the Great Recession, and many people were out of work. Obama set the stage for what would be a continuing drumbeat throughout his presidency. He urged every American to commit to at least one year of higher education beyond high school, whether it be at a traditional four-year university, a community college, or vocational training, framing higher education as the surest path to the middle class. He set forth a goal, that by 2020 America would again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

In 2010, he continued to characterize education as a way out of poverty, and a necessity in an expanding, global economy. He began to put an emphasis on investing in community colleges to open the door of higher education to more individuals, and urged Congress to pass a bill ending bank involvement in the student loan program. He also touted his plan for a new income-driven loan repayment plan: Pay As You Earn.

The 2011 State of the Union address continued to draw a focus to the importance of community colleges, and highlighted Obama’s plan to make permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit. By the end of his first term in 2012, Obama had not only begun to feature specific policy proposals, but also showed more frustration with the state of higher education and the rising cost of college. He urged Congress to keep interest rates on student loans from doubling, emphasized the role of state funding in keeping tuition levels lower, and put colleges and universities themselves in the hot seat.

“So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down,” Obama said. “Higher education can’t be a luxury -– it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”

In 2013, Obama made a point of emphasizing how sequestration would impact several different areas, including education. Again, Obama singled out colleges to do their part to make college more affordable, referenced certain policy proposals he saw as wins for his administration, and cited the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act as an opportunity to determine which colleges are eligible for federal aid.

“Through tax credits, grants and better loans, we’ve made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years,” Obama said. “But taxpayers can’t keep on subsidizing higher and higher and higher costs for higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure that they do.”

Obama wove a theme of cooperation throughout his remarks on education in his 2014 address. High schools, colleges, and employers must work together, he said, to make sure students in America receive “real-world education and hands-on training” throughout their lives. He demonstrated that theme of cooperation and shared knowledge by reminding the country of the College Scorecard and his College Opportunity Summit that brought together higher education leaders from across the country to strategize about affordability.

And last year, Obama used his State of the Union address to catapult his proposal for two years of tuition-free community college.

“By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education -- two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s sure not smart for our future,” Obama said.

While higher education was not a prominent issue in Obama’s final address, his administration has continued to make strides in an area that has consistently been a priority. Obama on Tuesday night vowed to continue to fight for free community college, and over the last several months has focused on higher education reform through the implementation of gainful employment regulations, his executive order to allow the use of prior-prior year income data on the FAFSA, and negotiations within the Department of Education to establish a process for borrower defense to repayment claims.


Publication Date: 1/13/2016

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