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What the State of the Union Means for College Students

President Obama delivered the fourth State of the Union of his presidency last week. In case you weren't paying attention, he said some surprising and interesting things about education. Though it was certainly not the focus of his speech, the few minutes he spent on the subject point to some interesting changes on the horizon.

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By Sarah Wright

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Public Education and High School

In the 2012 State of the Union, President Obama focused mostly on the twin big issues of war and the economy. Among the smaller-scale issues he addressed included approximately 15 minutes (with applause) of time devoted to the subject of education. The first part of his remarks on education dealt with students age 18 and younger.

Teachers

The political environment hasn't exactly been kind to teachers in recent years - they're being laid off in droves, their salaries and benefits have been slashed and their unions are put in jeopardy. But President Obama gave them a warm shout-out as his segue to the time he spent on the subject of education. He encouraged us to stop 'bashing' teachers or 'defending the status quo' in education after reminding Congress how likely it is that each individual in the room had been positively influenced by a teacher at some point in their life.

Without outlining how, exactly, he expects this to happen, the President said that he would like to see teachers have more freedom 'to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test.' However, he seemed to make a sharp delineation between good teachers and bad teachers - that 'most teachers work tirelessly', rather than all, and that those 'who just aren't helping kids learn' should be replaced. Again, though, he didn't provide details on how he expected to make this happen.

Dropout Rate and Age

Before launching into his section on higher education, President Obama briefly discussed the dropout age in the U.S. He made the point that by not allowing students to 'walk away from their education' they tend to graduate more often - a perhaps obvious remark considering that a high school dropout is obviously not intending to graduate when he or she leaves school. Not every state in the U.S. requires students to stay in school until they turn 18, but in the State of the Union, the President proposed that every single state make 18 its dropout age. This would make it mandatory for students to stay in school until that age, unless they graduate first. Presumably, this will make for more high school graduates in the U.S.

Higher Education

The president's remarks on higher education were longer, more detailed and much more ripe for controversy than his comments on other education subjects.

Tuition Costs

This section of the speech opened with the fair point that paying for college is one of the biggest challenges facing college graduates in the U.S. these days. Noting that student loan debt is higher among this nation's citizens than debt from credit cards, President Obama called for tuition tax credit extensions and work-study job increases. He also asked for the curtailment of 'skyrocketing' college tuition, saying that the government can't continue to subsidize financial aid in proportion to the rise in college costs. In what is perhaps the most controversial of the statements he made about education during the speech, the president put the onus for keeping tuition down on the colleges themselves, and noted that he's already spoken with a group of college presidents who have pledged to do just that.

This section of the address concluded with the unequivocal statement that higher education should not be a luxury in the United States. President Obama described higher ed as 'an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.'

International Student Citizenship

Using his final remarks about education to transition to a section about the importance of nurturing innovation in the country, the president turned his attention to the plight of international college students in the U.S. President Obama pointed out that many of these students come here and receive top-notch educations, only to be forced to then take their talent elsewhere after not being able to gain citizenship. In order to keep this talent within our borders, he encouraged Congress to pass a bill that would allow these international students to earn citizenship. He stated that he would sign such a bill 'right away.'

The President has made several relevant announcements for college students in recent months.

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