President Obama to College Journalists: "What I Want to Do is Just to Go Speak to Young People Directly"

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Right around noon today the President took some time for a conference call with college and university student-journalists.  He explained that part of the reason he was reaching out was to keep them engaged with their democracy:

And what I want to do is just to go speak to young people directly and remind them of what I said during the campaign, which was change is always hard in this country.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  You take two steps forward, you take one step back.  This is a big, complicated democracy.  It’s contentious.  It’s not always fun and games.  A lot of times, to bring about big changes like, for example, in our energy policy, you’re taking on a lot of special interests -- the oil companies and utilities.  And some of them may not want to see the kinds of changes that would lead to a strong green economy. 

And the point is, though, you can’t sit it out.  You can’t suddenly just check in once every 10 years or so, on an exciting presidential election, and then not pay attention…

 It’s a tough time and tough economy for those who may be coming out of college and into the job market for the first time - an issue the President took on during the call:

MR. DAILEDA:  Hi, Mr. President.  How are you today?

THE PRESIDENT:  I’m good, Colin.  Where are you calling from?

MR. DAILEDA:  I’m calling from southwest Virginia, Radford University.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, tell everybody I said hi there.

MR. DAILEDA:  I’ll do that.  Okay, so I’ve heard some of my professors call our generation the “lost generation” because we’re going to get out of school with a ton of debt due to student loans and not be able to pay them off really because, well, we don't -- not going to get a steady job -- it’s not that likely to begin with -- and the economy is in the shape it is currently in.  So I guess my question is, do you think there’s some truth to that?  And do you think it will take a longer time than usual for our generation to get on our feet?

And I guess -- I mean, you talked about in your health care plan and how we’re able to stay on our parents’ plans now until we’re 26 and that’s going to help us deal with kind of money issues and insurance.  But what else are you -- is your administration doing to kind of I guess help us stand up when we get out of college?

THE PRESIDENT:  A couple points I’d make.  First of all, I think your generation is going to be just fine.  I mean, we’ve gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and so things are real tough for young people right now.  But having said that, if you are getting a college degree, if you’ve got skills in math and science or good, sound communication skills, there are still jobs out there even in a tough environment.  And nine out of 10 people who are looking for work can still find work.

The key is for us to keep on improving the economy, and that’s going to be my number one priority over the next several years.  If the economy is growing, if we’re investing in small businesses so they can open their doors and hire more workers, if we’re helping large businesses in terms of plants and equipment  -- a lot of the initiatives that I’ve put in place already -- if we’re building infrastructure -- not just roads and bridges but also broadband lines -- if we’re investing in clean energy -- all those things are going to open up new opportunities for young people with skills and talent for the future.

So don’t let anybody tell you that somehow your dreams are going to be constrained going forward.  You’re going through a slightly tougher period.  But if you think about it, what we called “the greatest generation,” my grandparents’ generation, they had a situation where unemployment reached 30 percent and they ended up essentially building the entire American middle class to what it was and making this the most powerful economy in the world.  So right now we’re going through a tough time but I have no doubt that you guys are going to be successful.

Now in the meantime, some specific things that we can do to help, I already mentioned two of them.  One was you being able to stay on your parents’ health care until you’re 26.  That gives you a little bit of a cushion in the initial jobs that you’re getting coming out of college.  The second thing that I’ve already mentioned is that starting in 2014, we’re going to be in a situation where young people can cap their debt at 10 percent of their salary, regardless of what that salary is.

And if you go into something like teaching, for example, or you’re a police officer or firefighter, public service jobs of one sort or another, then that's forgiven after 10 years.  That's obviously going to be a big boost that would have helped me out a lot, because I ended up having 10 years worth of loans I had to pay down after I got out of law school.

In the meantime, what we’re also doing -- and this is already in place, this doesn’t wait till 2014 -- we have increased the Pell Grant.  We’ve made it available to more people.  We’ve made it more reliable.  And so hopefully students who are studying now are going to be able to keep their student loan -- their debt lower than I did when I went to school or Michelle did when we went to school.  That's obviously going to help.  That's a second thing.

A third thing we’re trying to do is to make sure that we’re giving young people a better sense of what jobs are out there in the future so that people end up gravitating towards the skills and the degrees that they need to get employed.  That's especially important for young people who are going through a community college system, because a lot of times folks are going through programs that -- where they’re racking up debt, they’re getting college credits, but these aren’t ultimately giving them the kinds of skills that they need to get a job.

And so all those things can be helpful in moving us forward. But the single most important thing I’ve got to do is make sure that we get this economy back on track, and that's why I’m so focused on things like a bill I’m going to be signing today that provides small businesses further incentive to invest and gives them tax breaks and financing, because they’re huge drivers of job creation over the long term.

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