September 26, 2018 | ° F

Obama: Improving economy will aid state colleges

As higher education costs at public colleges and universities continue to rise, increasing grants and loans will not ultimately solve the issue.

That is what President Barack Obama said in a teleconference yesterday, noting that in order to keep the nation's public colleges affordable, the economy needs to be put back on track at the national level.

"If I keep on increasing Pell Grants and increasing student loan programs and making it more affordable but higher education inflation keeps on going up at the pace that it's going up right now, then we're going to be right back where we started, putting more money in, but it's all being absorbed by these higher costs," Obama said.

State budgets are continually decreasing, so public institutions have been forced to make severe cutbacks in public education, he said.

"So improving the economy overall is going to be critical. That will take some pressure off the states," Obama said. "We also, though, need to work with the states and public universities and colleges to try to figure out what is driving all this huge inflation in the cost of higher education."

Higher education is the only place where inflation is higher than health care inflation, he said.

Some of the issues, though, are out of the control of university administrators, health care being one example, Obama said. Personnel costs are a large part of university expenses, and if their health care costs are rising, then those costs would have to be absorbed, he said.

"One of the things that I can do to help is to make sure that the economy is growing, states then are taking in more tax revenue, and if states are taking in more tax revenue, then they don't have to try to pass on increased costs to students because they can maintain levels of support to institutions of higher learning," Obama said.

John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, agreed.

"I think the president is right that as the economy gets better, there will be more tax revenue being raised and more money available to state governments, especially in New Jersey … and [more money] available to higher education," Weingart said.

Parents and students should look into where their money is going, especially in relation to certain luxuries like extra food courts and athletic facilities that might not be necessary, Obama said.

"Are we designing our universities in a way that focuses on the primary thing, which is education?" he said. "You're not going to a university to join a spa, you're going there to learn so that you can have a fulfilling career. And if all the amenities of a public university start jacking up the cost of tuition significantly, that's a problem."

Obama also discussed the need to bring college graduation rates in the country — which fell from first to 12th — back up.

According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, more than one third of U.S. college students drop out.

"If we're serious about building a stronger economy and making sure we succeed in the 21st century, then the single most important step we can take is to make sure that every young person gets the best education possible — because countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow," Obama said.

He hopes that by 2020, the United States will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Obama also stressed the need for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act to be passed, which gives undocumented students a chance to obtain legal status either by attending college or serving in the U.S. military.

"This is important legislation that will stop punishing young people who their parents brought them here, they may not have been documented, but they've for all intents and purposes grown up as American young people," he said.

He also encouraged young people to vote in the upcoming Congressional elections.

"Even though this may not be as exciting as a presidential election, it's going to make a huge difference in terms of whether we're going to be able to move our agenda forward over the next couple of years," Obama said. "The energy that [young people] were able to bring to our politics in 2008, that's needed not less now, it's needed more now."

Ariel Nagi

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