Obama speaks at UNC on importance of higher education

I had the treat of a lifetime yesterday. I attended (along with 8000 other members of the Carolina community) a speech by a sitting US president (only the 7th in the 200+ year history of Carolina).

President Obama talked about the critical role of higher education in our country’s economic and social fabric. If we hadn’t made the investment in higher ed that we did in the 1950s and 60s, we wouldn’t have gone to the moon, invented computers and the internet or developed countless cures for human diseases. We wouldn’t even have iPhones! The way the government invests in our future economy is by enabling people to go to college. These students that take out Stafford loans eventually pay them back, then go on to start companies like Apple Inc, that literally transform the world. Congress is currently about to DOUBLE the rates on Stafford loans from 3.4 % to 6.8%.  At a time when the prime bank lending rate is just over 3%! AND get this: these loans are Federally guaranteed, so there is really no risk to the lender.

House Republicans say the country cannot afford the $6 billion a year that it costs to pay for the lower rates. The Ryan budget, recently approved by the House, would allow the rates to double, and, at the same time, would cut taxes by $10 trillion over a decade.

Instead, Republicans would rather pile that burden on the backs of taxpayers-to-be, specifically the 7.4 million students who now have federally subsidized Stafford loans and the millions more who will need them. At a time when many graduates are desperate for jobs, the interest rate increase would add an average of $1,000 a year to their debt.

In the first of several speeches about the cost of higher education, President Obama urged students on Tuesday to demand that Congress renew the rates. “At this make-or-break moment for the middle class,” he said at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “we’ve got to make sure that you’re not saddled with debt before you even get started in life.” – excerpts from an editorial in today’s NYT

The speech was excellent (you can see it in full below). UNC was a fitting venue for the topic since we literally invented public higher education (Carolina, chartered in 1789, was the world’s first public university) and are at the cutting edge of keeping the cost of higher education as low as possible for families and students.  (Carolina was recently ranked first among the 100 public universities and colleges offering high-quality academics at an affordable price and number one on the 2012 “Best Value Colleges” list from The Princeton Review and USA Today. We TarHeels are really serious about this! But regardless of how low we keep tuition and housing costs, students and their families will continue to need Federal student loans.

Some of my favorite moments from the speech were the very beginning;

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  I love you, President Obama!

THE PRESIDENT:  I love you back, I do.  (Applause.)  Love North Carolina.  I love North Carolina.  (Applause.)  I do.  Every time I come down to this state I just love it that much more.  (Applause.)  I said a while back, the thing about North Carolina is even the folks who don’t vote for me are nice to me.  (Laughter.)  I can’t say that about everyplace.  (Laughter.)

When he talked about his own experiences as a poor student and college grad:

Americans now owe more on their student loans than they do on their credit cards.  And living with that kind of debt means that this generation is not getting off to the same start that previous generations — because you’re already loaded up with debt.  So that means you’ve got to make pretty tough choices when you are first starting out.  You might have to put off buying a house.  It might mean that you can’t go after that great idea for a startup that you have, because you’re still paying off loans.  Maybe you’ve got to wait longer to start a family, or save for retirement.

And this is something Michelle and I know about firsthand.  I just wanted everybody here to understand this is not — I didn’t just read about this.  (Laughter and applause.)  I didn’t just get some talking points about this.  I didn’t just get a policy briefing on this.  Michelle and I, we’ve been in your shoes.  Like I said, we didn’t come from wealthy families.

So when we graduated from college and law school, we had a mountain of debt.  When we married, we got poorer together.  (Laughter and applause.)  We added up our assets and there were no assets.  (Laughter.)  And we added up our liabilities and there were a lot of liabilities, basically in the form of student loans.  We paid more in student loans than we paid on our mortgage when we finally did buy a condo.  For the first eight years of our marriage, we were paying more in student loans than what we were paying for our mortgage.  So we know what this is about.

And we were lucky to land good jobs with a steady income. But we only finished paying off our student loans — check this out, all right, I’m the President of the United States — (applause) — we only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.  (Laughter.)  That wasn’t that long ago.  And that wasn’t easy, especially because when we had Malia and Sasha, we’re supposed to be saving up for their college educations, and we’re still paying off our college educations. – President Barack Obama speaking at UNC

And the ending, when he makes the point – that the GOP often ignores – that we all have moral responsibilities that extend beyond ourselves:

You and me, all of us here, every single one of us — we’re here only because somebody, somewhere, felt responsibility not just for themselves, but they felt responsibility for something larger.  It started with them feeling responsible for their families.  So your parents sacrificed, your grandparents sacrificed to make sure you could succeed.  But then they thought bigger than that.  They thought about their neighborhood, they thought about their community, they thought about their country.  They thought about the planet.  And now it’s our turn to be responsible.  It’s our turn to keep that promise alive. – President Barack Obama speaking at UNC

But everything was summed up with even more style and panache when Obama appeared on Late Night (also taped on campus! – students were treated to Obama, Jimmy Fallon, Dave Mathews and Steven Colbert wandering around the quad! – a crazy day!). Now check THIS out!

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