The Austin Chronicle

Obama Comes to Town

By Jillian Richardson, August 9, 2010, 2:53pm, Newsdesk

Today President Barack Obama spoke at UT Austin's Gregory Gym. See below for full speech.

Hello Austin! Hello Longhorns! It’s wonderful to be back. I love this town. I remember paying you all a visit during the campaign. I toured the stadium with Mack Brown. Got a photo with the Heisman. Even rubbed the locker room’s longhorns for good luck. Just saying, might’ve had something to do with how the election turned out.

I also remember the first time I came to Austin on the campaign. It was just two weeks after I announced my candidacy, back in February 2007. My hair wasn’t as gray then. And few folks thought I had much of a shot at the White House. A lot of people couldn’t even pronounce my name.

Then I came to Austin. It was a drizzly day – the kind of day that usually dampens turnout. But when I got to where the rally was, over at Auditorium Shores, there was a huge crowd of around 20,000 people – people of all ages, races, and walks of life.

And as I said that day, I knew you weren’t there just for me. You were there because you were hungry for change. Because you believed in an America where all of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from, can reach for our dreams, and make of our lives what we will.

That’s what we’ve been fighting for over the past eighteen months. I said we’d end the Iraq war as swiftly and responsibly as possible – and that’s a promise we’re keeping. I said we’d make health insurance more affordable and give you more control over your health care – and that’s a promise we’re keeping.

And I said we would build an economy that can compete in the 21st century. An economy that puts the American people back to work. An economy that’s built around three simple words: Made in America. Because we are not a country that plays for second place. We are the United States of America, and we play for first.

The way to do that is to recognize that in today’s world, we are being pushed as never before. From Beijing to Bangalore, Seoul to San Paolo, new industries and innovations are flourishing. Our competition is growing fiercer. And while our ultimate success has and always will depend on the industriousness of the American worker, the ingenuity of American businesses, and the power of our markets, we also know that we, as a nation, must do what it takes to make sure America remains number one.

That’s why I’ve set some ambitious goals for this country. I’ve called for doubling our exports within the next five years. Doubling our nation’s capacity to generate renewable energy by 2012. And producing 8 million more college graduates by 2020 so we can have a higher share of graduates than any other nation on earth.

In a single generation, we’ve fallen from first to twelfth in college graduation rates for young adults. That’s unacceptable, but not irreversible. We need to retake the lead. If we’re serious about making sure America’s workers – and America itself – succeed in the 21st century, the single most important step we can take is to offer all our kids – here in Austin, here in Texas, and across this country – the best education the world has to offer.

Now, I know some folks argue that as we emerge from the worst recession since the Great Depression, my administration should focus solely on economic issues. But as I said the other week to the National Urban League, education is an economic issue. It may be the economic issue of our time. It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have. It’s an economic issue when nearly eight in ten new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. It’s an economic issue when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.

So, we know how important an education is in the 21st century – it’s a prerequisite for prosperity. And in fact, we know what we need to do to offer our kids the best education possible. Because we can’t afford to let our kids waste their most formative years, we need to set up an early learning fund to challenge our states to make sure our kids are entering kindergarten ready for success. Because we can’t accept anything but the best in America’s classrooms, we’ve launched an initiative called Race to the Top. We’re challenging states to strengthen their commitment to excellence; to outstanding teaching and superior schools, to higher standards and better assessments. And we’re already seeing powerful results across the country.

But we also know that in the coming decades, a person’s success in life will depend more and more not on a high school diploma, but on a college degree, on workforce training, on a higher education. And so, today, I’d like to talk about the higher education strategy we’re pursuing not only to lead the world once more in college graduation rates, but to make sure our graduates are ready for a career; ready to meet the challenges of a 21st century economy.

The first part of our strategy has been making college more affordable. I don’t have to tell you why this is so important – many of you are living each day with worries about how you’re going to pay off your student loans. We all know why. Even as family incomes have essentially flat-lined over the past thirty years, college costs have grown higher and higher. Over the past decade, they’ve shot up faster than housing, faster than transportation, even faster than health care costs. No wonder the amount student borrowers owe has risen almost 25 percent over the past five years.

This isn’t some abstract policy matter to me; I understand it personally. Michelle and I had big loans to pay off when we graduated – and I remember what that burden felt like. That’s why I’m absolutely committed to making sure that here, in America, no one is denied a chance to go to college, no one is denied a chance to pursue their dreams, no one is denied a chance to make the most of their lives because they can’t afford it. We are a better country than that, and we need to act like it.

Now, part of the responsibility for controlling these costs falls on our colleges and universities. And some of them are stepping up. Public institutions like the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina, and private institutions like Cornell are finding ways to combat rising tuition without compromising quality. But too many others aren’t doing enough, and I want to challenge them to get a handle on spiraling costs.

So, yes, college and university administrators need to do more to make college affordable. But we, as a nation, need to do more as well. That’s why we fought so hard to win a battle that has been raging in Washington for years, and that is, how best to administer federal student loans. Under the old system, we’d pay banks and financial companies billions of dollars in subsidies to act as middlemen – a deal that was very lucrative for them, but wholly unnecessary and wasteful. And because these special interests were so powerful, this boondoggle survived, year after year, Congress after Congress.

But this year, we said, enough is enough. We simply could not afford to continue subsidizing special interests to the tune of billions of dollars a year at the expense of taxpayers and students. So, we went to battle against the lobbyists and a minority party united in their support of an outrageous status quo. And we won.

As a result, instead of handing over $60 billion in unwarranted subsidies to big banks and financial institutions over the next decade, we’re redirecting that money to make college more affordable for nearly 8 million students and families and upgrade America’s essential community college system.

We’re tripling how much we’re investing in the largest college tax credit for our middle class families. Thanks to Austin’s own Congressman, Lloyd Doggett, it’s now worth $2,500 a year for two years of college. And we want to make it permanent so it’s worth $10,000 over four years of college. Because the value of Pell Grants has fallen as the cost of college has risen, we’re not only raising the cap on how much Pell Grants are worth by over $800, we’re offering more support for the future so its value doesn’t erode with inflation. And we’re also making loan repayments more manageable for over one million more students in the coming years, so students at UT-Austin, and across this country don’t graduate with massive loan payments each month. And by the way, we’re also making information more widely available about college costs and completion rates so students and families can make the best decisions about where to go. And we’re simplifying financial aid forms by eliminating dozens of unnecessary questions – because it shouldn’t take a PhD to apply for financial aid.

If you’re married, you no longer need to answer questions about how much money your parents have. If you’ve lived in the same place for at least five years, you no longer need to answer questions about your place of residency. And soon, you’ll no longer need to submit information you’ve already provided on your taxes. That’s part of the reason we’ve seen a 20 percent jump in financial aid applications.

So, college affordability is the first part of the strategy we’re pursuing. The second part is making sure the education that’s being offered to our college students – and in particular, our community college students – is preparing them to graduate ready for a career. Institutions like the University of Texas are essential to our future. But so, too are our community colleges – a great, under-appreciated asset that we should value and support.

That’s why we’re upgrading our community colleges by tying the skills taught in our classrooms to the needs of local businesses in growing sectors of our economy, not only giving companies an assurance that the workers they hire will be up to the job, and not only giving students their best chance to thrive and prosper, but giving America its best chance to thrive and prosper. And that’s also why we’re reinvesting in our HBCUs and Hispanic Serving Institutions – like Huston-Tillotson, and St. Edwards.

The third part of our higher education strategy is making sure every student completes their course of studies. Over a third of America’s college students, and over half our minority students, don’t earn a degree, even after six years. So, we don’t just need to open the doors of college to more Americans; we need to make sure they stick with it through graduation. Community colleges like Tennessee’s Cleveland State are redesigning remedial math courses, boosting not only student achievement, but graduation rates. And we ought to make a significant investment to help other states do the same.

Lifting graduation rates. Preparing our graduates to succeed in this economy. Making college affordable. That’s how we’ll put a higher education within reach for anyone who wants it. That’s how we’ll reach our goal of once again leading the world in college graduation rates by the end of this decade. That’s how we’ll lead the global economy in this century, as we did in the last.

At each and every juncture throughout our history, we’ve recognized that essential truth – that the way to move forward, in our own lives, and as a nation, is to put education first. It’s what led Thomas Jefferson to leave as his legacy not only a Declaration of Independence, but a university in Virginia. It’s what led a nation torn apart by civil war to set aside acreage for the land-grant institutions to prepare farmers and factory workers to seize the promise of an industrial age. It’s what led our parents and grandparents to put a generation of returning GIs through college, and open the doors of our schools and universities to people of all races, broadening opportunity, growing our middle class, and producing a half century of prosperity.

And that recognition – that here, in this country, education and opportunity go hand in hand – is what led the first President of the University of Texas to say, as he dedicated the cornerstone of the original Main Building:

"Smite the rocks with the rod of knowledge, and fountains of unstinted wealth will gush forth."

That’s the promise at the heart of UT-Austin, at the heart of our colleges and universities, and at the heart of our country – the promise of a better life, the promise that our children will climb higher than we did. That promise, I suspect, is why so many of you sought out a college degree in the first place; why so many of your families scrimped and saved to pay for your education.

And I know that as we make our way through this economic storm, some of you may be worried about what your college degree will be worth when you graduate; about how you’ll fare in this economy; about what the future holds. But here’s what I want you to know. When I look out at all of you – when I look into the faces of America’s young men and women – I see America’s future, and it reaffirms my sense of hope. It reaffirms my sense of possibility. It reaffirms my belief that we will emerge from this storm and find brighter days ahead.

Because I’m absolutely confident that if you keep pouring yourselves into your own education; and if we, as a nation, offer all our children the best education possible from the cradle through a career; then not only will America’s workers compete and succeed, and not only will America compete and succeed, but we’ll complete the improbable journey that so many of you took up over three years ago, and build an America where each of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from, can reach for our dreams and make of our lives what we will. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

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