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Obama Takes To The Road To Push College Affordability Plan


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. President Obama is on a two-day back-to-school bus tour. He's holding a town hall meeting today at the State University in Binghamton, New York. Later he'll visit a community college in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The president is pushing his plan to make college education more affordable. NPR's Scott Horsley is along for the ride. He reports that the bus tour has the president in one of his comfort zones.


SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Like a veteran rocker back on tour, President Obama stuck to the hits yesterday, as his campaign-style bus wound through western New York, playing a college arena in Buffalo and a high school gym in Syracuse.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is good to be in Syracuse.


HORSLEY: Some 1,300 students gathered in the Henninger High School gym, some wearing bright green T-shirts spelling out their aspirations and the community's: graduation, college, career. That's a roadmap the president wants to encourage on this bus tour. But he warns too many aspiring college students are encountering a financial roadblock.

OBAMA: We've seen a barrier and a burden to too many American families and that's the soaring cost of higher education. The fact is, college has never been more necessary, but it's also never been more expensive.

HORSLEY: College costs have far outstripped inflation, and as states cut back on their support for higher education, families are footing more and more of the bill. While federal aid has increased, it hasn't risen fast enough to offset rising costs. That worries Richard Kalb, who was having lunch with his daughter Natalie yesterday at an outdoor cafe in Rochester, when the president's bus pulled up.

Natalie is starting her senior year today at the State University in Brockport. Kalb has a son in college as well.

RICHARD KALB: And I'm worried about, you know, how they're going to pay for it. How can I help them pay for it? It keeps me up at night. And a lot of my colleagues at work, same thing. This is the number one issue with friends my age with children in college.

HORSLEY: Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters he hears this story all the time.

SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: Virtually everywhere I go - to the dry cleaners, to the grocery store - I have hard-working middle-class parents coming up, basically pleading for help, asking for help. And there's a growing sense that college is for the wealthy. For rich folks.

HORSLEY: Obama thinks one way to reign in high college costs is by promoting the schools that have found ways to provide quality education at bargain prices. The administration plans to develop a new rating system for colleges based not on how exclusive they are but on what kind of opportunities they offer, how well they control costs, and how many of their students earn a degree with skills they can put to work.

OBAMA: Right now all these ranking systems, they rank you higher if you charge more and you let in fewer students. But you should have a better sense of who's actually graduating students and giving you a good deal.

HORSLEY: The administration can develop the rankings on its own. But Obama wants to go further and use those rankings to help allocate federal aid.

OBAMA: Colleges that keep their tuition down and are providing high-quality education are the ones that are going to see their taxpayer funding go up. It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future.

HORSLEY: Shifting money around like that would require approval from Congress, and the president acknowledged that could be a challenge. Top Republicans on the House and Senate Education Committees warned the president's plan could wind up stifling the very innovation he wants to encourage.

Still, Secretary Duncan notes lawmakers from both parties eventually compromised this summer on a bill to preserve low interest rates on student loans. Duncan says given how much the government spends on higher education, it should look at more than just how many students enroll.

DUNCAN: We at the federal level, we invest $150 billion each year in grants and loans for college. All of that is based upon inputs, just on access. We want to focus more on outputs. Are taxpayers, are families, are students getting good value for that important investment?

HORSLEY: The president's proposal also calls for more accountability from students. He suggests federal aid should be distributed in smaller chunks, requiring students to complete more of their coursework in order to qualify for the next installment. Scott Horsley, NPR News, traveling with the president. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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