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The State of Education: Students Respond to the State of the Union Address

Jan 28, 2010

Students across the country gathered in bars, college unions and in front of streaming webcasts to watch President Barack Obama's first State of the Union address. Many of them live-Tweeted their responses as Obama touched on K-12 education reform, cutting college costs and 'revitalizing' America's community colleges.

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During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama received an outpouring of support from America's colleges and universities. Now, a year into his presidency, the honeymoon appears to be over. Many students feel that Obama made more promises in his first year than he can keep, and they approached his State of the Union address with skepticism. David Gurevich, an undergraduate at Brown University, noted that he had 'become somewhat jaded toward Obama over the past year.' Looking beyond the President's 'eloquent rhetorical flourishes,' David found his policy approach lacking. Adam Schwiebert, a student at Ohio Northern University, felt that the address touched on all the big issues, but 'failed to provide significant guidance.' He commented that while the speech was delivered in 'classic Obama style… the realities of Washington have finally grounded much of the lofty campaign rhetoric.'

Nevertheless, the President did keep his eye on some pretty lofty goals during his speech. Acknowledging the challenges that have been plaguing the U.S. economy, Obama declared that 'it's time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth.' He spoke about finance reform, healthcare, clean energy and 'investing in the skills and education of our people.' Referring obliquely to Race to the Top, Obama praised a 'national competition' for promoting innovation and rewarding successful educational models, and expressed hope that Congress would push this reform out to all 50 states when they renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. As recent studies have shown, investing in human capital through education is essential for our nation's prosperity, and Obama's speech emphasized that education will continue to be a top priority for his administration.

President Obama delivers the state of the union address with Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi

Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood behind Obama as he delivered the State of the Union address.

Obama also spoke directly to higher education, noting that 'a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job.' He addressed the soaring tuition costs that have put college out of the reach of many people and left graduating students with a mountain of debt, asking colleges and universities to 'get serious' about cutting their costs. He also promised that the federal government would do their part, proposing to end the taxpayer-subsidies that go to banks for student loans and instead put the money toward increased Pell Grants and a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college costs. He also proposed that loan payments should be capped at 10% of a student's income, and that student loan debt should be forgiven after 20 years. Graduates who opt to go into public service would have their debt forgiven in only 10 years.

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Evan Strange, a student at Butler University, welcomed this news as a senior who's 'on the verge of facing his student loans head-on.' He commended Obama's emphasis on the importance of education and noted that the President's 'casual, yet forceful delivery made the speech even more motivating.' Jackie Sayevich, an MBA student at Centenary College, also heralded Obama's rhetorical style declaring, 'I've never seen a president speak so easily and be able to relate to the American people as he did last night.' Yet even Obama's supporters remain cautious. Evan added, 'Although it was a very refreshing and impressive speech, those words are just words until they are acted upon.'

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Obama also made a passing, but crucial, reference to the American Graduation Initiative (AGI) when he called on the Senate to 'follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges.' The AGI, which is part of the larger Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, calls for five million more community college graduates by 2020. It would also make an investment of over $12 billion toward 2-year colleges in the next 10 years with the Community College Challenge Fund. The bill has wide support in the education community as a means to closely link education and job training, putting badly needed skills back into America's workforce. However, many fear that the three month silence since the House passed the bill indicates that Congress has largely abandoned it.

Obama's call to action could breath new life into the bill, but it may yet again get lost among the many pressing issues facing Congress. Another fear that emerged among students watching the State of the Union address is that the President has bitten off more than the government can chew. Matt Wiseman, a student at Ohio Northern University, noted that Obama's speech was full of ambitious programs and bills, adding, 'while I believe the policies Obama endorsed in the speech may be beneficial to the nation, he has already had trouble fulfilling the promises he made in the past year.' Robert Bellach, a student at the University of New Haven, also questioned Obama's 'ability to motivate either party in Congress to work towards a consensus.' If Congress continues to resist changes in healthcare, energy and economic policy, education reform may simply disappear along with the rest.

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