Guest Commentary: The State of our Union

President Barack Obama

By Barack Obama

In my State of the Union Address, I laid out ways Democrats and Republicans can work together  to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class.

We should ask ourselves three questions every day: How do we bring good jobs to America?  How do we equip people with the skills those jobs require?  And how do we make sure hard work leads to a decent living?

Strengthening the middle class requires making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing, and reward hard work with wages that allow families to raise their children and get ahead.  But it also means recognizing that the surest path into the middle class will always be a good education.

As college students, you’re already well on your way.  The education you’re getting right now is the single best investment you can make in yourselves and your future, and it will put you in the best position to get a good job and build a great life for yourselves and your families.  Now it’s up to us to help keep the cost of that investment within reach, and to give even more Americans the opportunity to earn the education and skills that a high-tech economy requires.

We should start in the earliest years by offering high-quality preschool to every child in America, because we know kids in programs like these do better throughout their academic lives.  And we should redesign America’s high schools to better prepare students with the real-world skills that employers are looking for right now.

But the truth is, most young people will need some type of higher education.  It’s a simple fact: the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way into the middle class.  And that means we have to do more to make sure skyrocketing costs don’t price you and your families out of a college degree, or saddle you with mountains of debt.

Already, my Administration has worked to make college more affordable for millions of students and families through a mix of tax credits, grants, and loans that go farther than before.  But we also need to do something about the rising cost of college.

Over the last two decades, tuition and fees at the average college have more than doubled, and right now, students who take out loans end up leaving college owing more than $26,000.  That much debt can force you to pass over valuable opportunities that don’t pay as well — like working for a nonprofit or joining an organization like the Peace Corps.  And it can mean putting off big decisions like when to buy your first house or start a family of your own.

That’s why colleges also need to do their part to lower costs.  And we need to make sure they do because the taxpayers can’t keep subsidizing the rising costs of higher education.

Already, I’ve called on Congress to consider value, affordability, and other factors when they decide how much federal student aid a college should get.  And last week, we released a new “College Scorecard” that lets students and their parents compare schools based on simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.

As a nation, our future ultimately depends on equipping students like you with the skills and education a 21st century economy demands.  If you have the opportunity to reach your potential and go as far as your talent and hard work will take you, that doesn’t just mean a higher-paying job or a shot at a middle-class life — it means a stronger economy for us all.  Because if your generation prospers, we all prosper.  And I’m counting on you to help us write the next great chapter in our American story.

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