BOULDER – President Obama stopped at a University Hill institution, The Sink restaurant, to schmooze with beer-drinking, burger-eating students before making an impassioned plea for college affordability.
The centerpiece of his historic visit to the University of Colorado at Boulder campus Tuesday — the first by a sitting U.S. president — was to urge Congress to prevent interest rates on a popular student loan program from doubling. The current 3.4 percent rate on Stafford loans will increase to 6.8 percent on July 1 unless Congress takes action.
“We need to prevent the interest rates on federal students loans from shooting up and shaking you down,” Obama told a cheering crowd of about 10,000 in a very warm Coors Events Center.
He also appealed to Congress to extend the tuition tax credit he put into place when he took office; safeguard aid for low-income students; and extend work-study hours so students can work to pay off school.
Obama described a college education not as “a luxury” but an “economic imperative for every family in America.”
The social media-savvy president encouraged students to tweet about student loan debt by using the White House-approved hashtag, #DontDoubleMyRate.
While presidential candidates have made campaign stops on the state’s scenic flagship campus, Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit CU-Boulder, spokesman Bronson Hilliard said.
Students seemed willing to forgive his reference to “UC Boulder” vs. CU-Boulder.
Going for the college vote
Obama’s visit was part of a campus tour in three critical re-election states aimed at emphasizing the importance of college affordability and inspiring college-aged voters so critical to his previous success.
The president swooped into Colorado fresh off the heels of a visit to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he also taped a segment with talk show host Jimmy Fallon. He planned to hit the University of Iowa Wednesday.
“We saved the prime-time event for Boulder,” Obama said.
Republican Party leaders are trying to take some wind out of Obama’s sails on the college debt front. Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has also endorsed capping the interest rates on student loan debt, although the debate is sure to center on how to pay for the $5.9 billion extension.
Stafford federal subsidized loans have been issued to more than 7 million low- and middle-income undergraduate students. The doubled interest rate would affect more than 166,000 Colorado students next year and amount to $130 million in increased payments — or close to $1,000 per person, Obama said.
“That’s money out of your pocket,” the president said. “That’s a $1,000 tax hike for 7 million students across America.”
As he did in his UNC visit earlier in the day, he asked the crowd: “How many afford to pay an additional $1,000 right now?” There were rumbles but no hands shot up.
“So stopping this should be a no-brainer. This should be at the forefront of the agenda. It shouldn’t be a Democratic or Republican issue.”
As he also did in North Carolina, Obama shared his own college debt story. He and his wife Michelle only paid off their college loans eight years ago. He said when he married Michelle the couple had “a mountain of debt.”
“Think about that … I’m the president of the United States,” he said, to hoots and hollers. “We’ve got to make college more affordable for you.”
Confronting a slow economic recovery
Obama talked about the economic recovery too, and how 4 million new jobs have been created over the past four years.
“The economy is recovering but it’s not yet fully recovered from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression … But there are still too many Americans out there looking for a job, too many folks still lack the basic security that has always been at the heart of the American promise.”
Obama told CU students what a gift a degree truly is.
“The degree you earn from Colorado may be the best tool you’ve got to achieve the American promise.”
Shortly into his speech, a member of the audience yelled, “We believe in you!”
Obama called out, “I believe in you!”
Again, the audience erupted. Then, his voice boomed over the microphone:
“I don’t want this to be a country where a shrinking number of Americans are doing really, really well while a growing number are struggling to get by. That is not the future I want for you. I want this forever to be a country where everybody gets a fair shot.”
Obama said more needs to be done to make college affordable. He said tuition and fees at the nation’s universities and colleges have more than doubled since the CU students in the audience were born. An average American college student graduates with $25,000 in loans to repay.
“Not good,” Obama said.
“Americans now owe more in student loans than they do on their credit cards. Living with that kind of debt means pretty tough choices when you’re first starting out.”
Obama said the money spent to pay off loans could be better used to invest in business or in the economy.
He talked up other successes on the college affordability front since he’s been in office — getting the banks out of the federal student loan business, reducing the amount of loan debt graduates in lower-income jobs have to pay, and creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which, in part, educates students about college debt.
Still, he said, “We can’t keep subsidizing skyrocketing student tuition. We’re going to run out of money.”
States must also step up to the job
Obama said his administration has also challenged colleges and universities to show they’re doing everything they can to keep tuition affordable. He challenged states to pony up more for higher education.
CU sophomore Lauren Cross, 20, got in line at 8:30 a.m. Sunday to score a ticket to Obama’s talk.
She said she volunteers for the Obama campaign on weekends, registering voters. While she wasn’t among the students selected to be on the floor in front of the stage or on the risers behind Obama, she was exuberant nonetheless.
“I’m thrilled,” Cross said, as she sat with friends in the stands talking and snapping photos.
She also said she appreciates Obama paying attention to young Americans rather than foreign policy. She said she supports his stance on holding down interest rates on federal student loans, and trying to deal with a mess left by the “old fat bankers.”
“It’s cool he’s paying attention to those of us who are working our way up,” Cross said.
— CU student Lauren Cross
Hilliard said the university doled out about 6,500 free tickets to students who waited in line for hours to see Obama.
“It’s an honor and privilege to have a president of the United States visit our campus,” Hilliard said. “We have an active and engaged student body. More than 13,000 students engage in community service as part of their experience at CU-Boulder. That is evident in this turnout.”
Hilliard said the White House worked with the vice chancellor of student affairs’ office to hand-pick students representing a cross section of the university who would appear on the dais with him.
Enthusiastic crowd urges “four more years!”
Two lines snaked across campus hours prior to the president’s talk. Once the events center filled in, students began hooting and doing “the wave” and chanting “four more years!” or “U.S.A.!” on and off.
Ben Gelderloos, a 13-year-old student at Southern Hills Middle School, found himself on the floor in front of the podium – thanks to a family friend with a connection to Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia.
“I’m really excited,” Ben said, noting that he leaned Democratic because he comes from a family of Boulder Democrats. “I want to hear his views and what he’ll talk about.”
Debbie Pentz, a classroom aide at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder, was the one with the connection to Lt. Garcia.
“I’m very political,” Pentz said. “It important to engage kids in politics from a young age so hopefully, they stay involved as they get older.”
Hilliard said it was a complicated event to pull off, but there were no major problems related to security details, road closures or protesters near the Dalton Trumbo Fountain outside the University Memorial Center.
Compared to CU’s controversial crackdown on 4/20 pro-marijuana activists last week, Hilliard said, “This is the kind of large event we don’t mind seeing.”