Obama talks affordability, access for college students at University of Iowa visit

President Barack Obama speaks to a crowd of 5,500 people — according to a University of Iowa official — Wednesday, April 25, at the Field House in Iowa City. Obama gave remarks about student debt. 

Katelynn Mccollough

The University of Iowa Field House was a sea of black and gold as students welcomed President Barack Obama to speak on affordability and access to higher education.

Obama arrived Wednesday to the cheers of 5,500 students, faculty, staff and Iowa community members, said Stephen Pradarelli, director of the University of Iowa’s News Services.

Students started by screaming their “love” for the 44th president who quickly replied, “And I love you back!”

The president traveled to Iowa, a state that helped propel him to win the 2008 election, to discuss students’ “investment” in higher education, one he felt is being threatened by climbing tuition rates and fees.

“I am only here today and Michelle is only where she is today because scholarships and student loans gave us a shot at a great education. That’s how we succeeded,” Obama said. “Since most of you were born, tuition and fees in America’s colleges have more than doubled and that forces students to take out more loans and rack up more debt.”

Obama explained that the average debt for American college students when they graduate is $25,000. The University of Iowa’s graduating class of 2011 left with an average debt of $25,446.

Iowa State’s graduating class of 2011 had an average debt of $29,324, said Roberta Johnson, director of the ISU Office of Student Financial Aid. This average was lower than the previous four years. In 2006, ISU students left with an average debt of $30,619.

“We’ve got to make college more affordable for more young people. We can’t put the middle class at a disadvantage … we can’t price the middle class out of a college education,” Obama said.

The president explained that since taking office, he has changed the student loan system so it did not go through banks, put a cap on student loans so graduating students only have to pay 10 percent of their monthly income on loans, has created a Consumer Finance Protection Bureau to offer students more information and is encouraging colleges and universities to keep tuition low or they will not receive federal aid.

“State legislatures also have to do their part by making higher education a higher priority in budgets,” Obama said.

He said more than 40 states cut higher education spending in the last year.

The role of Congress in aiding in American college students’ financial issues was another major topic.

On July 1, a cut on interest rates for student loans will expire, adding an additional $1,000 dollars to students’ debt. This cut, which lowered the interest rates for student loans by half, was enacted five years ago.

Obama said Congress needs to act now to extend this cut on interest rates and explained that a bill was introduced in Congress for this purpose Tuesday night.

“Congress needs to act right now to prevent interest rates on federal student loans from shooting up and shaking you down,” he said.

Obama also wants Congress to extend a tuition tax credit that gives families a tax break when they help their kids go to college, continue Pell Grants for low-income students and double the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

“Helping more young people afford college should be at the forefront of America’s agenda and it shouldn’t be a Republican or Democrat issue. This is an American issue,” Obama said.

Though Obama said 77 Republican members of Congress voted for the original bill to keep student loan interest rates from doubling, he laughed at several recent remarks by the opposing party.

“One of these members of Congress … who compared these student loans, I’m not kidding here, to a stage-three cancer of socialism,” Obama said while laughing. “I don’t know where to start. What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

Obama also said the spokesperson for Speaker of the House John Boehner said this was a distraction from the issue of the economy.

“This is the economy. This is about your job security. This is about your future. If you do well, the economy does well. You are the economy,” Obama explained, his voice growing with each sentence. “Making sure our next generation earns the best education possible is exactly American’s business.”

Steffen Schmidt, ISU university professor of political science, said that Obama’s visit to Iowa, as well as Michelle Obama’s visit to Des Moines on Tuesday night, have to do with Iowa being a “battleground” state.

Schmidt explained in an email that Iowa is “one of a half-dozen or so that could swing either to the Democrat or the Republican in November. So Iowa is on the Obama, and probably later the Romney, campaign schedule. It is just as important this year for November as it was during the Iowa caucuses in January.”

Obama did not mention any campaign issues, but stuck strictly to the topic of college affordability.

“You’re here because somebody made a commitment to you,” Obama said, as he began to come to the end of his 30-minute speech.

“Somebody here had a parent or grandparent that said, ‘Maybe I can’t go to college, but someday my son can. Maybe I can’t start my own business, but someday I can picture my daughter starting her own business. Maybe I’m an immigrant, but I believe that this is the country, this is the place, that no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what your last name is, you can make it if you try.'”

A small group of around 15 protesters met outside of the Field House during the event.