SCRANTON — Finishing off a four-city, two-day bus tour in New York state and Scranton, President Barack Obama told more than 3,000 people at Lackawanna College’s gymnasium Friday that higher education is an “economic necessity.”
The president laid out his vision for a new government rating system for colleges that would judge schools on affordability and performance and ultimately determine how federal financial aid is distributed.
“We should not be subsidizing schools that are not getting good results for the young people that attend them,” he said.
Luzerne County Community College President Tom Leary said he’s glad Obama is putting the presidential spotlight on the issue of affordability and student debt.
“You have to keep costs low for the middle class and the economically disadvantaged or the country will not be able to move ahead,” Leary said, noting that much of what the president is touting is the same thing community colleges have been doing all along: educating without putting students into debt.
And while he agreed that the issue is complex, he said, it “comes down to common sense.”
The Rev. John Ryan, president at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, also applauded the president’s initiative.
“Since its founding to educate the sons of coal miners, King’s College has always been committed to the principles of making college accessible, affordable and a great bargain for students and their families,” he said. “I support President Obama’s plan in achieving these ends.”
Plan’s key proposals
The plan, titled “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class: Making College More Affordable,” illustrates the key proposals the president is seeking to both make colleges more accountable and make graduates more financially sound. A blue banner hanging behind the president displayed the same words.
Among the proposals the president outlined in his 32-minute speech:
• Tie financial aid to college performance, starting with publishing new college ratings before the 2015 school year. These ratings will help students compare the value offered by different colleges.
• The administration will seek legislation using this new rating system to transform the way federal aid is awarded to colleges once the ratings are well developed. Students attending high-performing colleges could receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans. While the new rating system does not require congressional approval it does need support from Congress in order to use the ratings as a basis for parceling out federal financial aid.
• The president is also seeking legislation to give colleges a “bonus” based on the number of students they graduate who received Pell Grants. The goal is to encourage colleges to enroll and graduate low- and moderate-income students.
• The plan would help ensure borrowers can afford their federal student loan debt by allowing all borrowers to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly incomes.
‘Once in a lifetime’
Others were thrilled to just see the president in person.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Jason Schields, of Scranton, who put off his Jersey shore vacation another day to see Obama and Biden together in person.
Obama started the two-day bus trip Thursday morning at the University of Buffalo before an estimated crowd of 7,000 before traveling via a $1.1 million armored black bus referred to as “Ground Force One” to Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y.
After spending the night at a Holiday Inn in Auburn, N.Y., the president held a town hall meeting Friday morning at Binghamton University, then travelled south on Interstate 81 to Scranton to wrap up the tour. He made a stop at Bingham’s Restaurant in Lenox, Susquehanna County, where he and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey enjoyed pie.
Vice President Joe Biden joined Obama in Scranton. Biden, who lived in the city until he was 10, told the crowd Scranton “is the perfect place to talk about education.” The area is full of middle-class families and plenty of colleges, he said.
“If you give ordinary folks a fighting chance, they can do extraordinary things,” Biden said, adding that “the middle class is what built this country.” Scranton was the only one of the four cities on the tour at which Biden appeared.
Keystone College political science professor Jeff Brauer was at the event at Lackawanna College and said he understood why Obama chose the cities he did to make his pitch.
Each city has one college, or more, and each is an “old industrial northeastern city that relied on the industrial jobs,” he said. “All have been hard hit by the recession and have yet to experience the recovery.”
While Brauer said he agrees there is a link between education and the economy, he thinks it’s a reach for Obama to believe this proposal will gain much traction with Republicans in Congress who already believe the “government’s overreach is too great and this will certainly add to that.”
Brauer said he sees Obama using this tour do two things, both political. One, the president is trying to “build on his legacy … he’s trying to secure legacy points.”
“He’s also showing the American people he’s trying to do something about it and show them he cares,” Brauer said, adding that he believes the president knows Republicans won’t go along with it so he can “shame them” at the same time heading into the mid-term elections next year.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, whose 11th Congressional District had included Scranton before recent redistricting, said he agrees with the president that “something must be done to make college more affordable.”
But how to best go about it is up for debate. “A great challenge we face in Congress is how to help support institutions of higher education, parents and students, whether it is by reducing federal overreach, promoting increased transparency or by removing politics from student loan programs,” Barletta said.
“I look forward to reviewing the president’s new plan with my colleagues on the House Education and the Workforce Committee this fall,” Barletta said. “We need to review the details and make sure Congress has the proper oversight and legislative authority in all of his recommendations.”