A disappointing State of the Union

On January 20, President Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address to Congress. It was his sixth such address, but the first with a notably upbeat tone.  Not only did this edition mark the first time that Obama described the state of the union as strong, but his speech was also filled with phrases like “tonight, we turn the page” and “the shadow of crisis has passed.”  The speech laid out grand proposals for a number of the issues facing the United States today, but one domestic policy received notably more attention than others: free community college, or the “America’s College Promise” plan.

The keystone education policy was actually inspired by the success of one state’s similar Republican-implemented plan.  In the fall of 2014, the Tennessee Promise initiative began, allowing high school graduates to apply for the program on which Obama based “America’s College Promise.”  The program allows high school seniors graduating in the state of Tennessee to apply for two years of community college or technical college tuition, which the state hoped would increase its college enrollment by 15 percent. The state plans to pay for this with lottery revenue. Although still in the first year of the program, the initial returns have been positive, as the program received almost 57,000 applications, tens of thousands more than was predicted.

In a speech devoid of any new K-12 education policies, “America’s College Promise” is the cornerstone of President Obama’s domestic policy in 2015, and the program does deal with a problematic void in American society today.  A growing number of jobs (at least 65 percent by the end of the decade) require a college degree, and America is woefully short in this category, falling further and further behind international higher education leaders like Korea and Japan.  Not only does this deficit greatly affect the lives of the Americans struggling to find well-paying jobs without a college degree, but it decreases the United States’ standing on the international stage, diminishing its place as a world leader.  Though funding “America’s College Promise” is problematic (estimates are that the program would cost about $60 billion over 10 years), it would certainly provide more Americans the chance to earn some higher education.  However, while the lack of students in America’s colleges is a major issue facing our higher education system, Obama fell woefully short in addressing the issues facing those already in college.

Statistics present an image of the American college debt crisis that is frightening, to say the least: debt on college loans has ballooned to about $1.2 trillion, with 15 of college graduates with debt default within three years, and the average college graduate faces more than $24,000 in debt upon graduation. At Swarthmore, this problem is certainly less prevalent than the average college, but it is certainly present.  Swarthmore students take out loans at a much lower level than the national average (only 19 percent, as compared with 71 percent nationally), and the average annual amount for these students taking out loans is $4,544, which is also comparably low.

While Obama took a strong stance on increasing community college access in his State of the Union address, the problem of student debt was notably missing from his address, being mentioned only once about a third of the way through the speech — “and I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.”  Relegating the issue of college loans to one broad sentence at the end of a paragraph, a sentence that acknowledges the issue of high monthly payments but provides no proposal on how to fix it, should be disappointing to the millions of college students and graduates struggling with debt.  In the year after only 14 percent of Obama’s proposals in the State of the Union actually became law, it’s hard to excuse this weak stance under the guise that Obama didn’t believe action on these issues would pass Congress.  Rather, it’s an indication of misplaced priorities.  While expanding community college access is an important issue, truly addressing the shortcomings of the higher education system requires a strong plan to address the financial state of college students and graduates, something Obama’s sixth state of the union utterly failed to provide.

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