Obama: College affordability a key priority

Education was a key part of President Obama's State of the Union address.
Education was a key part of President Obama's State of the Union address.

Education is one of the few areas of the federal budget that would not see a spending freeze, if President Barack Obama gets his way this year—and making college more affordable will be one of his main priorities.

In his State of the Union speech on Jan. 27, Obama called on Congress to finish work on a measure to revitalize community colleges. And he called for a $10,000 tax credit to families for four years of college, as well as an increase in Pell Grants.

“In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education,” Obama said.

He said college students should only have to devote 10 percent of their post-college income to repaying student loans.

“And let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, … all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years—and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college,” he added.

To make college more affordable, Obama urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would “end the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans.” The measure seeks to move college loans to a direct-lending model, in which the government would lend students the money they need for college—an idea that private lenders have been fighting since it was proposed last year. (See “Student lending landscape in flux.”) The House passed the measure in September, but the Senate has yet to vote on the bill.

The president also called on colleges and universities to “get serious about cutting their own costs—because they, too, have a responsibility to help solve this problem.”

Obama will ask Congress to boost federal spending on education by as much as $4 billion in the coming 2011 budget year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier in the day.

Of that total, $3 billion is slated for elementary and secondary education programs ranging from teacher quality to student safety, and $1 billion will be for higher education.

The request for $4 billion would increase federal education spending by about 6 percent.

The Education Department also wants to eliminate six programs, deeming them duplicative or ineffective. The agency would consolidate 38 other programs into 11 programs to eliminate bureaucracy and red tape. Duncan said the details about which programs these proposals would include will be available next week, when the president sends his 2011 budget plan to Congress.

Duncan said Obama’s decision to boost education spending, at the same time he is calling for a freeze on other federal spending, shows how important the issue is to the president.

“Given how tough the economy is now, having a 6 percent increase at this point is extraordinary,” Duncan said. “You’re not seeing that happen anyplace else.”

Obama’s speech also addressed the economy, and the need for action to create the jobs of the 21st century.