President Barack Obama will say in a speech today that a lag in the number of U.S. college graduates imperils U.S. economic competitiveness and that his education programs will close the gap.
In remarks at the University of Texas in Austin, Obama will highlight a report last month from the College Board that said the U.S., which once led the world in college degrees for people ages 25-34, now ranks 12th among 36 developed nations.
"We’re flat-lined while other countries have passed us by," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters in a conference call yesterday to preview Obama’s remarks. "The country that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow."
Obama has set a national goal that the U.S. should have the highest rate of college graduates in the world by 2020. Duncan said that means 60 percent of the population between the ages of 25-34, compared with 40 percent now. To reach the 2020 goal, the U.S. must add 10 million more students with two or four-year degrees over the next decade, Duncan said.
Obama, who will also attend two campaign fundraisers during the trip to Texas, will use the education theme today to reinforce a broader White House message for the congressional elections in November: “whether we’re going to keep going forward and build on the progress we’ve made, or go back to the policies that got us into this mess,” Dan Pfeiffer, the White House director of communications, told reporters on the conference call.
Choice of Texas
The president chose the University of Texas because Austin was the site of an education and health-care rally in 2008 that “was an important moment in the early days” of Obama’s presidential campaign, Pfeiffer said. He said Obama would refrain from criticizing policies of former President George W. Bush, a Republican who once said he wanted to be the “education president.”
“We’re not trying to litigate the past; we’re trying not to re-live it,” he said.
Obama is making his second trip to Texas since taking office, combining his public appearance with fundraisers in Austin and Dallas for the benefit of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, respectively.
Obama lost Texas to Republican presidential candidate John McCain by 55 percent to 44 percent. Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, has been critical of some Obama education policies. Democrat Bill White, a candidate for governor who has criticized the administration on spending, says he won’t meet with Obama, citing previous commitments.
Obama “has a history of getting good receptions from audiences all around Austin,” Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government, author and presidential historian at the university.
“Elsewhere in the state, it might be different,” Buchanan said in an e-mail. “Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White is avoiding a meeting, as he fears being tarred with that connection in the minds of Texas voters.”
Current world leaders in college graduation rates include South Korea, Canada and Russia, with about 55 percent of the population aged 25-34 years old holding college degrees, said Cecilia Rouse, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, who also briefed reporters in the conference call.
Texas has a college graduation rate of about 31 percent, so the state “has a little ways to go,” Rouse said, citing a report in April from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
“Education is an economic issue, if not the economic issue of our time,” Obama said July 29 in a speech in Washington, because eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade.
Cost of College
Duncan told reporters the administration is trying to improve college completion rates partly by making college more affordable. In the past 18 months, he said, the administration has pumped more than $30 billion of stimulus money toward increasing Pell grants for low-income students and providing tax credits to help parents cover student tuition expenses.
About $4.35 billion has been set aside for schools to close the achievement gap, and the administration has ended student loan subsidies to private banks, diverting the more than $60 billion in savings to increase aid to needy students. Student aid applications have been streamlined and the government has imposed a 10 percent cap on student loan repayments, with loan forgiveness after 20 years of payments.
In the last nine days, including events today, Obama has held eight Democratic fundraisers in Washington, New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, Austin and Dallas, raising millions of dollars, with more events planned in the Midwest, West and South next week.
Federal Election Commission figures show the Democratic National Committee has almost $11 million on hand as of Aug. 7, about the same at the Republic National committee. In Senate races, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has $21.6 million in the bank, compared with the National Republican Senatorial Committee at $19.7 million.
The combination of an official appearance by the president with two political fundraisers allows the Democratic Party to share the expense of security and Air Force One travel with taxpayers, an advantage permitted by FEC guidelines that’s been used by presidents of both parties.