On a rainy Thursday evening at a packed Henninger High School, President Barack Obama spoke to Syracuse residents as part of his two-day bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania.
The president's tour has focused on his proposed legislation to make high education more affordable. He came to Syracuse, he said, because of programs like Say Yes to Education, which provides free college tuition for students in the Syracuse City School District.
“These are programs helping Syracuse kids get ready for college and making sure that they can afford to go,” Obama said. “This is a community effort. All of you are coming together and you have declared that no child in the city of Syracuse should miss out on college education because they can’t pay for it.”
Before coming onstage, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan briefly spoke about the necessity for the president’s reforms to make higher education more affordable.
“We want to help drive down cost,” Duncan said. "The goal is not to go to college. The goal is to graduate and come out the backend."
Emilio Ortiz, a senior at Corcoran High School, then introduced the president after a short speech he personally wrote for the event.
When the president finally made it to the stage, the crowd erupted into cheers. After thanking Ortiz for his speech and pointing out his parents, which Ortiz said were his motivation and inspiration, Obama said he hoped other communities in America would follow Syracuse’s example in promoting higher education for its students.
The next step in recovering from the “brutal” recession, Obama said, is to make higher education more affordable. While many Americans lost jobs, homes and money during the recession, the president said the recession also exposed an emerging gap in the “life prospects of a lot of Americans.”
“What used to be taken for granted — middle class security — has slipped away from too many people,” he said.
But before the president could finish his thought, a woman shouted something about Bradley Manning, the former United States Army soldier who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking government documents. Another woman, later identified as 2012 congressional Green Party candidate Ursula Rozum, held up a “Free Bradley Manning” sign, inciting boos and shouts from the crowd. Rozum also spent time with protestors outside the high school before the event, she said. These protestors were anti-hydrofracking activists and a Muslim group opposing foreign aid to Egypt.
The hecklers were escorted out of the gym almost six minutes into the speech, and the commotion caused Obama to lose his control of the audience. He shouted, “hold on” more than 10 times before settling down the crowd.
“Can I just say, as hecklers go, that young lady was very polite,” Obama said. “She brought up an issue of importance.”
Back on the topic of education, Obama delved into the details of his proposed reforms. His planned legislation will give colleges a bonus based upon the number of students with Pell Grants who graduate. The president also wants Congress to fix the Pay As You Earn plan, which caps the payment for students with loan debt at 10 percent of their yearly income.
“We want every student to have the chance to pay back their loans in a way that doesn’t stop them from pursuing their dreams,” Obama said.
These reforms will also introduce a new college ranking system based on affordability, scholarships and graduation rates, Obama said. This system, Obama said, will increase the value of the schools and promote innovation in the colleges. The reforms will also help students pay for college.
“We'll help more students get rid of their debt so they can get started on their lives,” he said.
When asked about how the new ranking system will affect Syracuse University, Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who attended the event, said the university will do just fine.
“SU will look very good because we care deeply about socio-economical diversity,” she said. “We really care about who we’re bringing in.”
Obama said the issue of paying for higher education needs to be Congress’ highest priority. All the talk of shutting down the government and repealing Obama’s healthcare reform, the president said, is distracting from other more important issues.
“We don't need that,” Obama said. “What we've got to do is to build on the cornerstones of what it means to be middle class in America: good job, good wages, a good education, a home, affordable health care, a secure retirement,” he said. “That's what we need to focus on.”
Over the past three decades, Obama said the average tuition of a four-year public college rose by more than 250 percent, while the typical family income only rose 16 percent. Those numbers, along with the $26,000 the president said the average college graduate owes, are why Obama said he thinks these reforms are the most important issue today.
“There aren't a lot of things that are more important than making sure people get a good education,” Obama said. “That is key to upward mobility. That is key to a growing economy. That is key to a strong middle class.”
The choice to say no to college or pay the price of going to college and coming out with debt is not a choice young Americans should have to make, Obama said.
Lashea Grimes, a 38-year-old licensed practical nurse and lifelong Syracuse resident, has one child in college now and another child still in high school. The biggest sticking point in Obama’s proposed reform, she said, is following students not only in high school, but also in college. She said many children in Syracuse would benefit from the proposed reform because it will help out all the single parents and give their children something to look forward to.
“As long as they stick to what the plan is then hopefully it’ll work,” Grimes said. “Everything takes a while to get all the smudges out and get everything in order. Hopefully it’s something all our kids can benefit from.”
Getting the reforms to pass through Congress will take some hard work, Obama said, but the president plans to continue to push to “build a better bargain for the middle class.”
“We're going to make sure that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or who you love or what your last name is,” Obama said, “in the United States you can make it if you try.”