County residents attend speech

By NICOLE GUGINO

OBSERVER Assistant News Editor

BUFFALO – President Barack Obama returned to Buffalo Thursday to lay out a plan to make higher education more affordable for middle class families.

Several Chautauqua County residents were able to attend Obama’s speech which included a three-point approach to improving higher education.

“It is an economic imperative that every American family should be able to afford (higher education). So that is the problem- What are we going to do about it? Today I am proposing major new reforms that will shake up the current system, create better incentives for colleges to perform well and deliver a better value to students and their families,” he said.

Obama emphasized that higher education costs have risen at a rate of 250 percent since the 1980s, while income has only gone up by 16 percent. He referenced his personal experience where he and Michelle were paying off their law school loans into their 40s when they should have been saving for their children’s higher education costs. He also noted this was in a time when undergraduate degrees were less expensive.

SUNY Fredonia President Virginia Horvath, being of a similar age to President Obama, said she has seen the change in the price of higher education, but she has also seen the state decrease its contribution to colleges’ operating costs.

“I appreciate what Obama was saying where a generation or two ago it wasn’t like it is now. We didn’t have to say to young people, ‘Figure it out and borrow money.’ But, at that point the operating expenses were maybe 60 percent funded by the state and now we are below 15 percent. So it’s not just that colleges are wasting money or jacking up the prices,” she explained.

The first point in Obama’s plan is to create a ranking system for colleges based on student graduation rates, loan default rates and job placement.

Horvath said she is not sure how SUNY Fredonia will rank but thinks the president is on the same page as the college.

“I know that the things that he is emphasizing in that rating system are really different from US. News and World Report because they focus on student success. Those are things that are consistent with the values of our own institution. So I am glad to hear of a metric based on that and not the size of your endowment or what other people say about you or the name recognition of your institution. Those things aren’t really measures of student engagement and success,” she said.

Obama also said after the rankings are set, he would like to see federal aid allocated based on these new rankings, which would incentivize states, schools and students toward achievement.

Horvath said she was cautious to comment on this aspect of the plan without knowing more details of how it will work.

The second point of Obama’s plan asks colleges to explore innovative ways to offer effective education at an affordable price. He used examples like gaining college credit in high school, online courses and receiving credit for mastery of a subject instead of class hours.

SUNY Fredonia has participated in the 3-1-3 program for many years, which enables high school students to get as much as a year of coursework out of the way before high school graduation. Horvath said many students are also coming to the school with advanced placement (AP) credits. She said no courses on campus are fully online because it doesn’t make sense for a residential campus, but she said it may be more applicable for the school’s graduate programs in the future to accommodate working students.

The third point of Obama’s plan would help students manage their debt, increase awareness of federal programs.

County Legislator and County Clerk candidate Lori Cornell said the president’s plan struck home for her because she and her husband are still repaying their student debt. She said this is the first time she has been at one of Obama’s events, although she saw presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before, and she was proud to represent Chautauqua County.

“Regardless of what you think of the president, there is no denying our region is coming back and this visit just confirms that” she said.

County Democratic Chairman Norm Green also attended Thursday’s speech. He said the president’s idea of a new rating system could be good news for schools in the county.

“I thought it was exciting for Chautauqua County because he put forward a plan to rate colleges based on affordability and success in graduating students. So that means that Chautauqua County should do very well. He commented the federal money will go to the colleges that are best ranked so I would imagine that is good for Fredonia and good news for Jamestown Community College,” he said.

Green also agreed with the president that student loans are holding back graduates from other goals – even in Chautauqua County.

“We have students getting out a Fredonia, about 1,000 graduates a year, and they get out into the community and they’re struggling to be able to buy homes or to buy a business because of the overwhelming debt. It is certainly something we need to look at but unfortunately we have a Congress that isn’t as cooperative at it should be. But I would hope that Congressman Reed would pay attention to this and … that he would support the president’s proposals,” Green said.

Obama concluded the speech by saying meeting these goals will take hard work.

“If we move forward on these three fronts; increasing value, encourage innovation and helping students responsibly manage their debt, I guarantee you we will help more students afford college and more students graduate from college. … But it does take a lot of hard work, good news is from what I hear folks in Buffalo know something about hard work, folks in America know something about hard work. We have come a long way to get here and we are going to keep moving forward on this issue and every other issue,” he said.

Comments on this article may be sent to ngugino@observertoday.com.