BINGHAMTON – President Obama spent an hour this afternoon answering friendly questions from a friendly audience at Binghamton University, as students and professors repeatedly asked him to delve deep into his plan for cutting college costs – and never asked him much about anything else.
Although dozens of anti-fracking protesters gathered outside among Obama supporters hoping to catch a glimpse of the president, there was nothing but unity inside a small auditorium on the campus here, where an audience of just a few hundred got to see the president up close and personal.
His message was much the same as the one he’s been spreading ever since he began his two-day bus tour of upstate New York and northeastern Pennsylvania on Thursday: The tuition is too damn high, and the president is going to do something about it.
“Higher education should not be a luxury,” Obama said.
After unscheduled stops in Auburn and Tully, south of Syracuse, the president went to Binghamton to reiterate his three-point plan for getting college costs under control, which includes a new government rating system that will measure schools based on their cost and their quality.
He went off-script on occasion, musing, for example, that perhaps law schools could cut costs by trimming their programs down to two years from the current three.
And perhaps most notably, he took a shot at for-profit colleges, saying they seem sometimes to be taking advantage of their students, who in some cases are returning veterans, by providing a mediocre high-cost education.
In some cases, “the for-profit institution is making out like a bandit,” Obama said.
But in general, the students and professors who got to ask Obama questions this afternoon seemed to be on his side, generally asking questions about college costs and never once challenging him.
And all the while, the president seemed to be looking for ways to reiterate his message – and to stress that he couldn’t solve the college costs problem on his own.
“Universities and faculty need to come up with ways to also cut costs while maintaining quality,” Obama said.
The president’s Binghamton appearance came after he made two unscheduled stops this morning.
First the president, who spent the night in a Holiday Inn in Auburn, stopped for a workout at the YMCA in in that small central New York City – which reporters were not allowed to witness.
And then he surprised high school soccer players in Tully, in Onondaga County, by showing up at their practice.
“I was driving by and I thought…I’d like to kick the ball around a little bit,” Obama said.
The president began by visiting the girls’ soccer team at Tully Central High School.
“Can you guys beat the boys?” Obama asked the girls, prompting one to say: “Oh, definitely.”
The president also mused about the scenery he passed as he rode through Central New York, saying he was surprised to see so many crops growing amid the many dairy farms.
“I didn’t realize,” he said. “As I was driving in, there’s actually, there’s some decent corn around here.”
Soon enough, though, the president turned the topic toward the theme of his two-day bus swing through upstate New York and northeastern Pennsylvania, which he kicked off Thursday in a speech at the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena. The tour will end later today at Lackawanna University in Scranton, Pa.
“I’m assuming everybody here is going to want to go to college,” he said to the young soccer players in Tully. “So, part of what we want to do is make sure that whatever school you decide to go to that you can afford to do it and you can get grants and loans and you don’t end up having too much debt.”
After the stop in Tully, Obama’s motorcade made its way to Binghamton, which is in the heart of the Marcellus Shale, the gas-rich formation that, just to the south in Pennsylvania, is being tapped by the controversial process called hydraulic fracturing. New York continues to ban the practice while studying its safety.
Already at 11 a.m, dozens of protesters lined the route to the Binghamton campus to protest “fracking,”
“We can’t drink money,” said a sign carried by one protester. Opponents of fracking argue it can contaminate ground water.
Meantime, the president finished up his visit with the students in Tully by talking to the boys’ soccer team – and joining them on the field.
He asked one boy to pass him the ball, and when he did, the president balanced it briefly on his foot before setting it on the ground and kicking it back.
“He knew that I was too old for him to kick it hard,” the president said.
And as the press pool returned to its bus, Obama tried something tougher: kicking a goal.
The sleek black presidential bus blocked reporters’ view, but the crowd screamed.
Zremski reported from Binghamton. Accounts from White House poll reporters who accompanied the president to Auburn and Tully were also used in compiling this story.