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Obama To Congress: Make College Affordable, Invest in Worker Training

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CREDIT: AP Photo / Saul Loeb, Pool

President Obama called on Americans to prioritize education in his annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress, speaking of a “country that leads the world in educating its people.”

During the address, Obama called on members of Congress to prioritize the middle class, including by making college more affordable and investing in worker training. And he put colleges and universities “on notice” to ensure Americans can afford degrees.

“If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down,” he said. “Higher education can’t be a luxury—it’s an economic imperative that every family in American should be able to afford.”

Asking states to prioritize higher education, for example, could be difficult when 41 states cut funding for higher education in 2011. In a “blueprint” [PDF] released by the White House during the speech, the administration is “proposing to shift some Federal aid away from colleges that don’t keep net tuition down and provide good value.”

The president called on Congress to pursue a number of other education-related initiatives, including extending the tuition tax credit, doubling the number of work-study jobs available over the next five years, and passing the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students. The tuition tax credit, which Obama is asking Congress to make permanent, provides families with up to $10,000 for tuition costs over four years of college.

Many had predicted a strong focus on education prior to the address, which was further emphasized by First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to invite some young Americans struggling with student loans or unemployment to watch the speech with her.

“To prepare for the jobs of tomorrow,” the president said, “our commitment to skills and education has to start earlier.”

He applauded Siemens, the electronics manufacturer, for creating a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina to design courses in laser and robotics training and paid tuition for future employees. Nontraditional students make up an estimated 40 percent of U.S. college students.

“Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job,” he said. “Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers—places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.”

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Noting that “Americans owe more in tuition than credit card debt,” Obama called for Congress to prevent the interest rate on student loans from doubling on July 1, a move that could cost some students as much as $5,200 more in interest costs over a decade of repayment.

“Students are already weighed down by campus budget cuts, shaky family finances, and uncertain job prospects,” Rich Williams, PIRG's higher-education advocate, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “In this economy, we cannot double the student-loan interest rate.”

During the speech, the Twitter hashtag #education was used 35,972 times—the most of any of the president’s “core issues” in the address, according to the Twitter blog. During Obama’s discussion of education and college tuition, tweets per minute reached 12,870, the third highest rate of the evening.

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While the State of the Union typically isn’t the place for detailed policy proposals, analysts say they believe Obama will address his education proposals more specifically in a speech at the University of Michigan on Friday.

Alyssa Battistoni is a staff writer for Campus Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @alybatt.

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