on August 22, 2013 - 7:35 AM
, updated August 22, 2013 at 9:57 PM
President Obama told an energetic crowd inside the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena this morning that he chose to speak in Buffalo about his goals for higher education because the university is doing “great work.”
“I wanted to start here at the University at Buffalo,” Obama said, at the beginning of his remarks on the topic of higher education.
Obama unveiled a set of proposals that he said would improve the ways that colleges work and make college education more affordable for families – and the process easier to understand.
“Higher education cannot be a luxury,” Obama told the audience in Amherst. “It’s an economic imperative.”
Among the president’s proposals is one to create a system to rate colleges so that families can understand which ones have the best value.
“We think this can empower students and families to make good choices,” Obama said.
Obama used the Amherst campus of the university as the backdrop for a key speech that kicks off a two-day bus tour of upstate New York, in which he will focus on new proposals to control what the White House calls the spiraling cost of a college education.
At 11:16 a.m., the president took the stage inside the Amherst arena, to the roar of the crowd of thousands of spectators, after an introduction by a UB student from Grand Island, Silvana C. D’Ettorre, a sophomore majoring in exercise science.
“It is good to be back in Buffalo!” Obama told the crowd.
Obama flubbed a bit at the beginning of his remarks, referring to the mayor of Buffalo as Brian Higgins.
The crowd roared.
“Here’s what happens when you get to be 52 years old,” Obama joked, recovering from his mistake.
Obama then shifted to a more serious tone and laid out what he called the connections between stability and success in the American economy and a college education.
“We’ve got to create more pathways into the middle class for people who are willing to work for them,” Obama said.
He said that higher education can be a major one of these pathways for citizens.
“A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future,” the president told the crowd, which applauded enthusiastically at his statements.
And yet, he said, “college has never been more expensive.”
In recent years, Obama said, there has been a striking rise in the cost of tuition, which has been outpacing wages – with states spending less, and families taking out more loans.
Obama said that he paid off his own student loans in his 40s.
“A generation ago we made a bigger commitment,” he said, of the assistance he received.
Obama’s proposals for changing the way higher education affects average families included the rating system, which he said would factor into the federal aid that colleges and universities get.
The president also called for more competition among institutions of higher learning, to spur innovation and foster excellence and efficiency.
Obama’s third proposal centered on debt. He told students who currently have debt from their education loans: “We have to make sure that it’s manageable.”
The president said he would like to increase enrollment in “Pay as You Earn,” a student loan repayment program.
The president also said that he believed his proposals would hit home in a city like Buffalo.
“People in Buffalo know something about hard work,” Obama said.
His speech ended just before noon.
Earlier this morning, the president’s plane touched down at Buffalo International Airport at 10:15 a.m. The president, clad in a blue blazer, blue shirt and khakis, emerged from Air Force One at 10:26.
His motorcade traveled by local roads, including the Millersport, to UB’s north campus.
At the airport, Obama was greeted by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who was accompanied by his daughters Cara, Mariah and Michaela. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Rep. Brian Higgins also greeted the president and chatted with him briefly.
The president then moved on to greet several dozen people who were awaiting his arrival, shaking hands as many in the crowd snapped photos.
Obama will be “unveiling an ambitious new policy agenda” on higher education during his visit to Buffalo, said Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Obama’s higher education plan will include both legislative proposals and administrative actions aimed at controlling college costs, Munoz said.
Noting that the college costs have soared 250 percent in the last 30 years while family incomes have risen only 16 percent, Munoz said: “We know that students in the state of New York graduate with an average of almost $26,000 in debt, and this is moving in a direction of becoming unsustainable. The president feels very strongly that this is something that we need to address, that we need to make sure a college education is available to middle class families in this country.”
Buffalo and Western New York leaders said they were happy to have the president putting a spotlight on the region.
“I’m excited President Obama is focused on Buffalo and Western New York,” said Brown, the mayor. “And that he’s focusing on education and the importance of keeping costs down.”
The president chose to travel to Buffalo and upstate New York for a good reason, Munoz said.
“Buffalo is a vibrant university community,” Munoz said. “It is a good place to illustrate how important this is to middle class families. The SUNY system has been a leader in making sure that college is affordable, and has invested in innovations to help support both the quality and the reduced costs of an education. So that makes Buffalo a great place to lead this conversation.”
The president’s speech here comes at a time when his approval ratings by American voters have slipped.
In a recent average of national polls by Real Clear Politics, 50.3 percent of voters said they disapproved of the president’s job performance.
Obama’s trip through the region comes in the wake of his family’s summer vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, and as he looks ahead to the return of Congress in early September.
In Amherst, crowds gathered both inside and outside UB’s Alumni Arena, where the president’s speech began just after 11:15 a.m.
Prior to the president’s speech, Education Secretary Arne Duncan addressed the crowd, including about the role of higher education in getting a good job.
“We have to make that American Dream a reality,” Duncan said.
UB President Satish K. Tripathi also spoke, telling the crowd the moment was historic. Tripathi noted that a sitting president has not visited the university since 1853. UB has hosted events featuring seven former presidents, he said.
“You are part of history in the making,” Tripathi said.
Earlier in the morning, lines of people waiting to get into the arena were long, stretching past the university Commons, and the mood of the crowd was quiet, calm and upbeat. Some people clutched tickets in their hands; others chatted and took photographs to commemorate the moment.
Alumni Arena holds about 6,500 people for the university’s Distinguished Speakers Series. After the event, UB estimated that 7,200 people attended.
Tickets for the free event had been highly coveted. Some eager would-be attendees waited in line for more than 15 hours to snag spaces in the building for the speech. Earlier this week, tickets had been posted for sale on Craigslist by sellers seeking up to $500 for seats.
One Buffalo resident waiting in the crowd, Valerie Owens, said she could “hardly sleep” last night, while awaiting today’s event.
Owens brought her two young sons, 7-year-old Jeremy and 8-year-old Isaiah, to witness the day.
“When their teacher asks them what was the best thing they did this summer, they’ll be able to write in big block letters that they saw the president,” said Owens, whose children attend Buffalo’s public school 54. “Not Fantasy Island, not the fair, not the zoo.”
Today’s appearance marks the second time that Obama has visited Buffalo while president.
The previous visit took place in 2010, when he visited a company on Depot Street in the city and ate chicken wings at Duff’s – and where a Chaffee woman memorably called the president a “hottie,” in an exchange that got a lot of national media coverage.
In his talk today, Obama was expected to build on an address he gave at the University of Michigan last year, in which he called for more clarity about college costs.
“He talked, for example, about transparency, about how the decisions that we make as consumers of a college education should be at least as well informed as the decisions you and I would make if we were buying a refrigerator,” Munoz said.
The president will also provide more information about the timing of his legislative proposals on college costs, said Munoz, who noted that the Higher Education Act – which guides federal policy regarding colleges and universities – is due for reauthorization soon.
“We know there is bipartisan support for the kind of proposals that he’s putting forward, so we’re hopeful that the legislative pieces will have strong bipartisan support,” she said. “But there are also administrative pieces that the administration can move forward and he is looking forward to outlining them in Buffalo.”
Outside Alumni Arena this morning, people attending the speech were being checked for security purposes – including members of UB’s marching band, which was expected to play before the speech to keep the crowd entertained.
Electronics and cameras were being closely examined by security. Besides the crowd of general public, hundreds of media members were expected at the event.
Leaders in Buffalo’s black community, political figures and elected officials were seen outside the arena. Shortly before 10 a.m., Erie Community College President Jack Quinn arrived at the arena.
Protesters, including a few dozen people protesting the president’s stand on fracking, were also outside the venue. Some of the environmental protestors cited positive things that Obama has done for the environment on the subject of climate change.
Bill Nowak, a Sierra Club member, said the fracking protesters were there largely to spread their message and encourage support for alternative energies among the students and other attendees.
“The president and governor can only do what mass movements allow them to do. A lot of our friends are going in there (to hear Obama),” he said. “He needs people to stand behind him.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan will accompany the president on at least the first day of the two-day trip, which will also take Obama to Syracuse, Binghamton and Scranton, Pa. Obama plans on holding a town meeting at Binghamton University, and Vice President Joe Biden, a Scranton native, is expected to join Obama in Scranton on Friday.
In Syracuse Thursday evening, Obama will visit Henninger High School and promote the city’s “Say Yes” program, which aims to reduce the high school dropout rate and properly prepare students for college, as a model for schools around the country.
“He will indeed be lifting up the Say Yes program in Syracuse,” Munoz said. “He believes very strongly that it takes community support in order to make sure students are successful, and he’s really looking forward to lifting that up when he’s in Syracuse.”
Noting that the president previously outlined a plan to make preschool available to all American youngsters, Munoz said the president believes the federal government must be engaged in every level of education in the nation because education is such an important part of the nation’s economic future.
“This is all part of a broader effort to lift up the goal of making sure we’re securing a bright economic future for the middle class and for people who still struggling to get to the middle class,” Munoz said. “And so it’s important to the president to be having this conversation around the country, and he’s really looking forward to having it in Buffalo.”