Obama Education Speech: Here's His Solution to Soaring College Debt

President Obama spoke on Thursday to an audience of students from the University of Buffalo to address the "soaring cost" of higher education in the country. The president's speech laid out three elements of a plan he hopes will "deliver better value so that students and taxpayers get bigger bang for their buck."

The president raised applause from the crowd of students as he highlighted the importance of education for the country's future, saying, "This country will only be as strong as our next generation. A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future." He highlighted the pertinence of improving college affordability, nothing that, since 1985, the college education inflation rate has risen nearly 500%.

The most notable idea the president presented was a proposal to enact a new college ranking system as a way in which federal funding can be allocated. Obama announced that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would have a new rankings system available to Americans before the 2015 school year that will be based on new metrics to highlight the colleges maintaining the most affordable programs with the highest quality. These metrics included evaluating educational equality alongside figures such as average student debt, graduation rates, and post-graduation gainful employment numbers.

The White House already has an interactive "College Scoreboard" that incorporates this model. But the new rankings would be laid out in a list form, that could function as an alternative to popular ranking systems such as the prominent list provided by U.S. News and World Report.

Another, more controversial aspect of the president's plan related to how federal funding might be better allocated to encourage affordability alongside educational quality. States would also need to reform their models, as the president acknowledged the fact that state funding for colleges is generally distributed alongside enrollment numbers rather than alternative factors like quality and affordability. Obama cited some examples of innovations he believes fit the mold, such as Southern New Hampshire University, which gives class credit based on mastery of material rather than course time. He also highlighted the growing role of quality online education, citing Georgia Tech's online engineering degrees as an example of high-quality, low-cost learning.

Obama's final proposal, to help ensure students have ways to "manage and afford debt" incurred for college education will likely play out with some difficulty in Washington, as Americans are divided on the current loan system. The president explained that he hopes to go beyond his current effort that caps loan repayments at 10% of monthly income to develop new federal loan grant systems based on the "Pay as You Earn" system, to work to drive down debt burdens.

The importance of affordability in education is an undisputed challenge for the coming generations of Americans that the President's speech helped highlight. The challenge will now be be in implementing programs to truly overhaul rising costs of college.

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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