State of the Union addresses college costs

Current and former University administrators praised President Barack Obama’s State of the Union pledge to tackle college affordability issues, calling Obama a friend to the field of higher education.

In his 70-minute speech Wednesday night, Obama called on colleges and universities to reduce their rising costs, introduced the idea of tax credits for families paying for college, and called for debt forgiveness programs for low-income families and students who enter public service.

“I agree with President Obama that the affordability of a college education is an important national issue,” said University President Steven Knapp in an e-mail. “That’s why I met with all the vice presidents on my very first day in office – August 1, 2007 – to discuss affordability and launched, during my first year, an affordability initiative with four main components.”

Knapp said the four components include slowing the rate of yearly tuition increases, guaranteeing fixed tuition and financial aid for five years, increasing financial aid by increasing fundraising, and lessening the amount of debt students graduate with.

New undergraduate tuition at the University increased nearly 60 percent between the 2001-02 and 2009-10 academic years.

But former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said the burden of reducing college costs should be more of a joint effort than Obama let on Wednesday night.

“We can reduce [tuition] if he can reduce costs,” Trachtenberg said. “[It is] fair for him to ask and fair for us to request quid pro quo in exchange. What does he want us to cut? Electric bill? Payments to faculty? Books? Does he want larger classes? [We] need a national commission to look at both sides of the agenda.”

Trachtenberg added, however, that Obama’s speech signaled to students and their families that the White House is committed to improving the quality and affordability of education nationwide.

“I think they have a friend in the president, who clearly believes that education is part of a national mandate, and is trying to do as best he can, given a lot of other burning platforms, to be helpful,” Trachtenberg said, referring to current students and their families.

Knapp said Obama’s commitment to forgiving debt for students who go into the field of public service is one that will likely benefit GW students – many of whom go into the field of public service after graduating.

“I also agree with President Obama’s emphasis on making it easier for students to go into careers in public service,” Knapp said. “That’s one reason why it’s so important to reduce the amount that students have to borrow: so they can afford to take lower-paying public sector jobs should they choose to do so.”

Trachtenberg also said debt forgiveness for students going into public service careers would likely resonate the most with GW students.

“Talk about forgiving debt for people going into public service has been part of the conversation for a while, and it used to be that if they went into teaching, particularly if they went into teaching in inner cities, debt would be forgiven,” Trachtenberg said. “But that’s too narrow. I think a broader mandate is more important, and it seems to be appearing.”

Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak said Obama’s commitment to debt forgiveness sounds good in theory, but added that the words need to be put into action for them to mean anything.

Chernak said that a debt forgiveness program hinges on Congress passing a direct lending bill, which would allow students to borrow money directly through the government, rather than through banks.

“The real issue now is that so many lobbyists on behalf of lending institutions don’t want to see direct lending take place because this is a self-interest among lenders,” Chernak said.

President Obama also spoke about giving $10,000 tax credits to families paying for four-year collegiate institutions. Trachtenberg said the plan is a smart one, but added that it will not drastically affect students who go to expensive private universities, like GW.

“Everybody will be glad to have the extra dollars, but I think in the end that’s not going to be a go or no-go issue for GW students, given the size of the investment they are making in their education,” Trachtenberg said.

He added this would most likely affect students paying in-state tuition at public institutions in the U.S.

“If the tuition at one of the State University of New York schools is $4,500 or $5,000 a year, that $10,000 is two years’ worth of tuition,” Trachtenberg said.

Overall, Trachtenberg said he was glad the issue of education made it into Obama’s address.

“It was a long speech, but education deserved a lot of time because he was talking about putting a lot of money into it,” Trachtenberg said. “Politically it was sound to talk about it because there are a lot of people out there who are worried about what will happen to their children and their future, and are they going to be able to get the education they need. I think it was once again a good move politically to deal with that.”

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