President Obama rolled into Buffalo on Thursday to unveil an ambitious plan aimed at curbing college costs – and to praise a city that he said is on the move.
Kicking off a two-day bus tour of upstate New York and northeastern Pennsylvania, his first stop was the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena, where he delivered impassioned remarks before a rapt crowd of 7,200, including many students.
“We can’t price the middle class and everybody working to get into the middle class out of a college education,” he said. “We’re going to have to do things differently. We can’t go about business as usual.”
The president’s appearance was not without glitches. He began with praise for Buffalo’s “outstanding mayor, Brian Higgins,” giving the city’s Democratic congressman the job of Mayor Byron W. Brown – until the crowd corrected him.
In general, though, it was a quintessential Obama performance, marked by ambitious new proposals described in soaring language that was aimed at the hearts and the minds of the middle class.
“Today, I’m proposing major new reforms that will shake up the current system, create better incentives for colleges to do more with less, and deliver better value for students and their families,” Obama said.
Buffalo made for a great place to announce those big plans, the president said. “I wanted to do it for a couple reasons. First, I know you’re focused on the future,” he said. “As I said, talking to the mayor, he was describing a new medical school and new opportunities for the high-tech jobs of tomorrow. So there’s great work being done at this institution.”
It’s a model that other colleges should follow, Obama said as he laid out a three-point plan for making college more affordable nationwide.
First and foremost, Obama directed Education Secretary Arne Duncan – who accompanied him to Buffalo – to set up a system, by the 2015 academic year, that will enable students and their parents to compare colleges in terms of their cost and quality. Schools that don’t measure up could lose federal aid.
“There are schools out there who are terrific values,” Obama said. “But there are also schools out there that have higher default rates than graduation rates. And taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing students to go to schools where the kids aren’t graduating. That doesn’t do anybody any good.”
Second, the president said the federal government would encourage colleges and universities to develop innovative ways of holding down costs and improving quality.
For example, Obama cited universities that boost online education and give students college credit when they’re still in high school, as well as schools that experiment by giving students credits based on what they learn and not just the number of hours they spend in the classroom.
Noting his plan requires cooperation from the universities, he said: “I have confidence that our country’s colleges and universities will step up – just like Chancellor (Nancy) Zimpher and the folks at SUNY are trying to step up – and lead the way to do the right thing for students.”
Also, the president said he’s aiming to control student debt by expanding the “Pay-As-You-Earn” program, which the administration started two years ago. It caps student loan repayments at 10 percent of a college graduate’s income.
“Now, if we move forward on these three fronts – increasing value, encouraging innovation, helping people responsibly manage their debt – I guarantee you we will help more students afford college,” Obama said. “We’ll help more students graduate from college. We’ll help more students get rid of that debt so they can get a good start in their careers.”
Obama traveled to UB from Washington Thursday, arriving on Air Force One at Buffalo Niagara International Airport at 10:15 a.m.
Bounding down the stairs to the tarmac, Obama found Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo there to greet him, along with the governor’s daughters, Cara, Mariah and Michaela.
Brown and Higgins were there, too, and they exchanged brief words with the president before he went off to shake hands with several people in the crowd of about 100 .
But the biggest honor of the day – introducing the president before his speech at UB – fell to Silvana D’Ettorre, a UB sophomore from Grand Island. “The president has always focused on helping students to succeed,” she told the crowd. “I greatly admire his passion in ensuring that everyone – regardless of family income, gender or race – has access to an exceptional and affordable education.”
After D’Ettorre’s introduction, the president, clad in a navy blue blazer, light blue oxford shirt and khakis, made his way to the stage as the crowd roared.
“Hello, Buffalo! Hello, Bulls!” he said as the crowd roared. “Well, it is good to be back in Buffalo, good to be back in the North.”
And while his remarks focused almost exclusively on his education plan, Obama interspersed his 31-minute speech with praise for a community he was visiting for the second time in his presidency.
“Here in Buffalo, the governor and the mayor were describing over a billion dollars in investment, riverfront being changed, construction booming – signs of progress,” he said.
“Your congressman and your mayor are doing outstanding work,” he added. “We just rode on the bus over from the airport, and they were telling me that Buffalo is on the move.”
From there, Obama delved deep into his education plan before a crowd that, for the most part, seemed to appreciate every word.
One Buffalo resident waiting in the crowd, Valerie Owens, said she could “hardly sleep” last night.
Owens brought her two 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 School 54. “Not Fantasy Island, not the fair, not the zoo.”
Such comments were understandable, given the Buffalo-friendly, student-friendly nature of the president’s visit.
“Mayor Brown was talking about the City of Buffalo and the great work that is being done through the program called Say Yes to make sure that no child in Buffalo has to miss out on a college education because they can’t pay for it,” Obama said. “But even though there’s a great program in this city, in a lot of places that program doesn’t exist.”
After his speech, Obama went into the crowd to shake hands and, minutes later, was headed for an overnight stay in Auburn, then on to Binghamton and Scranton, Pa.