Obama holds town hall meeting on campus
By Eric Coker
College affordability is an issue that President Obama admitted is "personal" to him.
"A lot of you know that I wasn't born into a lot of wealth or fame," he said. "There wasn't a long Obama dynasty. The only reason Michelle and I have been able to accomplish what we've accomplished is because we got a great education."
Obama came to Binghamton University on Aug. 23 to tout "A Better Bargain for the Middle Class: Making College More Affordable" – a three-part plan aimed at curbing college costs and improving the affordability of higher education. (Click the photo to see a larger image.)
The president found a partner in Binghamton University, a school that has already expanded high-impact research, increased access through a commitment to need-based financial aid, reduced its student-to-faculty ratio from 22-to-1 to 19-to-1, and has maintained affordability by committing to a five-year rational tuition policy established by the New York legislature.
"I'm excited about the great work that SUNY campuses like Binghamton are doing to keep costs down for hard-working students," Obama told a crowd of 300 students, faculty members and administrators in the Mandela Room of the University Union, while hundreds of others watched a live stream of the talk in the Watters Theater. Dignitaries at the event included former U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, current Congressmen Richard Hanna and Paul Tonko, Binghamton Mayor Matthew Ryan and state Sen. Thomas Libous.
"Mr. President, you have a friend, a partner and an advocate in Binghamton," University President Harvey Stenger said in his introductory remarks. "Please let us know what we can do to assist you. The stakes are high and the task is daunting, but we are committed to helping you in any way possible."
SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher pointed to programs such as Open SUNY, SUNY Works and SUNY Smart Tracks as ways that have "positioned SUNY to remain one of the most affordable and quality higher education options in the United States."
"President Obama once again chose The State University of New York to highlight what's working in higher education and outline his vision for the future," she said. "His three-part plan to make college more affordable for all Americans is a cornerstone of the foundation that we are building in New York."
Obama briefly outlined his affordability plan before beginning a town-hall meeting. The first reform aimed at "shaking the system up," he said, is a rating system that by 2015 would be based on well colleges provide students with value and opportunities. Taxpayer dollars would be steered toward high-performance, high-value schools.
"We want to look at factors such as: How much debt do students leave with? Do they actually graduate in four years? Do they find a job?" Obama said.
More accountability would also be demanded of students, who would need to finish courses before seeking more loans and grants.
The second part of the plan calls for colleges and states to be innovative and consider ways to reduce costs. Some examples include online classes and "flipped" courses in which students may watch lectures out of class and solve problems in class.
"There are schools now that are experimenting with giving credits based on your competency as opposed to how much time you are spending in the classroom," he said.
The final part of the plan helps students manage their debt and financial obligations. The president wants to better advertise a program that now caps monthly debt payments to 10 percent of current income.
"It's manageable and you are not going to have to make career decisions based simply on 'how much money can I make to pay off my student loan?'" he said. "We have this program in place, but it's not as widely known as it needs to be and not as many young people are eligible for it as we want to."
The nation's current path toward college affordability is unsustainable, Obama said, and a broad-based conversation is needed on the topic.
"The bottom line is that we need to stop taking the same business-as-usual approach," he said.
The college-affordability proposal served as the foundation for a 55-minute town hall meeting that featured questions from students and faculty members. For the sake of fairness, Obama called for "a girl-boy-girl-boy" format.
Nicole Rouhana, director of graduate nursing programs in the Decker School of Nursing, asked Obama if there were any provisions within the affordability plan that would support nurse practitioners and healthcare workers to create a sustainable workforce as the Affordable Care Act moves forward.
Obama said there are parts of the Affordable Care Act that assist doctors and nurses who make a commitment to work in underserved communities. Nevertheless, nursing shortages persist in some areas.
"Part of the problem is that too many nursing instructors get paid less than actual nurses," he said. "So we end up not having enough (nursing) slots in some schools. We have to upgrade many schools of nursing to make sure that we have enough instructors."
Obama expressed his support for early-childhood education after Ivanna Smith, a graduate student in the College of Community and Public Affairs, asked about cuts to the Head Start Program.
"I want to expand early-childhood education," he said. "It is just common sense. Studies have shown that the biggest bang for the buck you can get in education is to invest early. If we have 3- and 4-year-olds well prepared when they start school, that momentum continues. If they start behind, too often they stay behind."
It is "pennywise and pound-foolish," he added, not to back important issues such as college affordability, early-childhood education, research and technology, and national infrastructure because of a non-existent "deficit crisis."
"If we don't do these things, in 20 or 30 years we will fall further behind," Obama said.
Anne Bailey, associate professor of Africana studies and history, said she is planning to attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and asked the president about today's connections between education and civil rights and making sure that under-represented groups have educational opportunities.
"Fifty years after the March on Washington and the 'I Have a Dream' speech, we've obviously made enormous strides," Obama told Bailey. "I'm a testament to it and you're a testament to it. The diversity of this room and the students who are here is a testimony to it."
But it is in the best interest of all Americans to make sure policies are in place to give underfunded communities a lift, he said, "and to create ladders so that young people in those communities can succeed."
"I think the biggest challenge we have is not that we don't know what policies work, it's getting our politics right," Obama said. "Because part of what's happened over the last several decades is, because times have been tough, because wages and incomes for everybody have not been going up, everybody is pretty anxious about what's happening in their lives and what might happen for their kids, and so they get worried that, well, if we're helping people in poverty, that must be hurting me somehow, it's taking something away from me.
"And part of what I think we have to understand is that America has always been most successful, we've always grown fastest, and everybody's incomes have gone up fastest when our economic growth is broad-based, not just when a few people are doing well at the top, but when everybody is doing well."
Lauren Villalva, an integrated neuroscience major, drew Obama's attention with her field of study.
"That sounds impressive!" he said. "Explain that to me. It has something to do with the brain and nerves?"
"It's a mix between psychology and biology," Villalva replied.
Villalva asked if future financial-aid formulas could include the living costs of the region that applicants reside in.
"It is a challenging problem because if you start getting into calibrating cost of living just in a state like New York − a big state that has such diversity in terms of cost of living − then it might get so complicated that it would be difficult to administer," Obama said.
The president called it "an important question" and said he would consult with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the issue. Obama even told Villalva that she would get a personal e-mail answer from the education secretary on the matter.
Obama, who left the town hall meeting shaking the hands of students and other guests as "Land of Hope and Dreams" by Bruce Springsteen played in the background, told the audience members that they can expect to hear more about the college-affordability debate over the next year.
"We will be talking to your university president," he said. "We'll be talking to the chancellor of the entire system. We'll be talking to faculty. We'll be talking to students. If you have ideas or questions that were not somehow addressed, then we'd like to hear from you."
See a video of the entire town hall meeting on the White House YouTube site.