Obama woos crowd at CU-Boulder

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.

This photo of CU student Madalyn Starkey with President Obama at The Sink went viral quickly after the president's historic visit to campus. Photo used with Starkey's permission.

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.

Coors Event Center fills before Obama's talk.

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.

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.

“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.

Students rise to applaud as Obama speaks.

“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.

Obama is first president to visit CU-Boulder.

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.

“It’s cool he’s paying attention to those of us who are working our way up.”
— 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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”