Remarks by the President on College Affordability
10:26 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. Have a seat. Have a seat. Welcome to the White House. I know it’s a little warm. (Laughter.)
One of my favorite things about this job is that I get to spend some time with remarkable young people from all across the country. It inspires me. It makes me feel good. Those of you who have had to put on suits and ties and show up at the White House first thing on a Friday morning may not feel the same way I do -- (laughter) -- but I appreciate all of you being here. You cleaned up very well.
And these students and graduates are here to talk about something that matters to millions of young people and their families, and that’s the cost of a college education. Because this isn’t just critical for their futures, but it’s also critical for America’s future.
Over the past four and a half years, we’ve been fighting our way back from a financial crisis and an incredibly punishing recession -- the worst since the Great Depression -- and it cost millions of Americans their jobs and their homes, the sense of security that they’d spent their lives building up.
The good news is, today, our businesses have created nearly 7 million new jobs over the past 38 months. 500,000 of those jobs are in manufacturing. We’re producing more of our own energy, we’re consuming less energy, and we’re importing less from other countries. The housing market is coming back. The stock market has rebounded. Our deficits are shrinking at the fastest pace in 50 years. People’s retirement savings are growing again. The rise of health care costs are slowing. The American auto industry is back.
So we’re seeing progress, and the economy is starting to pick up steam. The gears are starting to turn again, and we’re getting some traction. But the thing is, the way we measure our progress as a country is not just where the stock market is; it’s not just to how well the folks at the top are doing; it’s not just about the aggregate economic numbers. It’s about how much progress ordinary families are making. Are we creating ladders of opportunity for everybody who’s willing to work hard? Are we creating not only a growing economy, but also the engine that is critical to long-lasting, sustained economic growth -- and that is a rising, thriving middle class. That’s our focus. That’s what we’ve got to be concerned about every single day. That’s our North Star.
And that means there are three questions we have to ask ourselves as a nation. Number one: How do we make America a magnet for good jobs in this competitive 21st century economy? Number two: How do we make sure that our workers earn the skills and education they need to do those jobs? And number three: How do we make sure those jobs actually pay a decent wage or salary, so that people can save for retirement, send their kids to college?
Those are the questions we’ve got to be asking ourselves every single day. So we’re here today to talk about that second question. How do we make sure our workers earn the skills and education they need to do the jobs that companies are hiring for right now, and are going to keep hiring for in the future? We know that the surest path to the middle class is some form of higher education -- a four-year degree, a community college degree, an advanced degree. You’re going to need more than just a high school education to succeed in this economy.
And the young people here today, they get that. They’re working through college; maybe just graduated. And earning their degree isn’t just the best investment that they can make for their future -- it’s the best investment that they can make in America’s future.
But like a lot of young people all across the country, these students have had to take on more and more and more debt to pay for this investment. Since most of today’s college students were born, tuition and fees at public universities have more than doubled. And these days, the average student who takes out loans to pay for four years of college graduates owing more than $26,000. How many people are on track here for $26,000?
And that doesn’t just hold back our young graduates. It holds back our entire middle class, because Americans now owe more on our student loans than we do on our credit cards. And those payments can last for years, even decades, which means that young people are putting off buying their first car, or their first house -- the things that grow our economy and create new jobs. And I’ve said this before, I know this firsthand -- Michelle and I, we did not finish paying off our student loans until about nine years ago. And our student loans cost more than our mortgage. Right when we wanted to start saving for Sasha and Malia’s college education, we were still paying off our own college education.
And we were lucky. We had more resources than many. So we cannot price the middle class or folks who are willing to work hard to get into the middle class out of a college education. We can’t keep saddling young people with more and more and more debt just as they’re starting out in life.
Now, the good news is over the past four years, my administration has done a lot to address this. Working with members of Congress, we’ve expanded student aid. We’ve reformed the student loan system. We’ve saved tens of billions of taxpayer dollars that were just going to big banks, and made sure that the money went to helping more young people afford college.
We made it easier to pay back those loans by passing a law that says you’ll only have to pay 10 percent of your monthly income towards your student -- federal student loans once you graduate. This is important to emphasize, by the way, because a lot of your peers, a lot of young people don’t know this. Under existing law that we passed, you never have to pay more than 10 percent of your income in paying back your federal student loans, which means if you want to be a teacher, you want to go into a profession that does not pay a lot of money but gives you a lot of satisfaction, you are still capable of doing that and supporting yourself.
We unveiled a new college scorecard that gives parents and students the clear, concise information that you need to shop around for a school with the best value for you. And I’ve made it clear that those colleges that don’t do enough to keep college costs down should get less taxpayer support.
So we’re doing what we can, but here’s the thing: If Congress doesn’t act by July 1st, federal student loan rates are set to double. And that means that the average student with those loans will rack up an additional $1,000 in debt. That’s like a $1,000 tax hike. I assume most of you cannot afford that. Anybody here can afford that? No.
Now, if this sounds like déjà vu all over again, that’s because it is. We went through this last summer. Some of you were here. It wasn't as hot. (Laughter.) I don't think we did this event outside. (Laughter.) But we went through this. And eventually, Congress listened to all the parents and young people who said “don’t double my rate.” And because folks made their voices heard, Congress acted to keep interest rates low. But they only did it for a year and that year is almost up.
So the test here is simple. We’ve got to make sure that federal student loan rates don’t double on July 1st. Now, the House of Representatives has already passed a student loan bill, and I’m glad that they took action. But unfortunately, their bill does not meet that test. It fails to lock in low rates for students next year. That’s not smart. It eliminates safeguards for lower-income families. That’s not fair. It could actually cost a freshman starting school this fall more over the next four years than if we did nothing at all and let the interest rates double on July 1st.
So the House bill isn't smart and it's not fair. I'm glad the House is paying attention to it, but they didn't do it in the right way. So I’m asking young people to get involved and make your voices heard once again. Last year, you convinced 186 Republicans in the House and 24 Republicans in the Senate to work with Democrats to keep student loan rates low. You made something bipartisan happen in this town that is -- that's a powerful thing. You guys were able to get Democrats and Republicans to vote for something that was important.
So this year, if it looks like your representatives have changed their minds, you're going to have to call them up again or email them again or Tweet them again and ask them what happened, what changed? You're still taking out these loans. You're still facing challenges.
Remind them that we're a people who help one another earn an education, because it benefits all of us. During the Civil War, Lincoln had the foresight to set up a system of land grant colleges. At the end of World War II, we set up the GI Bill so that people like my grandfather could come back from a war and get an education. All these things created the greatest middle class on Earth.
My mom, a single mom, was able to get the support that she needed through loans and grants -- even while she was also working and raising two kids -- to get her degrees. I'm only here, Michelle is only right over there in the East Wing because we got great educations. We didn't come from privilege. And we want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities, because that has been good for the country as a whole.
It’s up to us now to carry forward that tradition. Higher education cannot be a luxury for a privileged few. It is an economic necessity that every family should be able to afford, every young person with dreams and ambition should be able to access. And now is not the time for us to turn back on young people. Now is not the time to slash the investments that help us grow. Now is the time to reaffirm our commitment to you and the generation that's coming behind you, and that if we work together to generate more jobs and educate more kids and open up new opportunities for everybody who’s willing to work and willing to push through those doors of opportunity, America can't be stopped.
So I'm putting my faith in you. Let's work together. Let's get this done by July 1st. Thank you, everybody. God bless you. God bless America. Thank you. (Applause.)
10:36 A.M. EDT