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Obama discusses education and the economy with college journalists

President Barack Obama participates in a conference call with college journalists in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama devoted the first half of his Monday to talking about his vision for the future of education in America, first on NBC’s Today Show and later on a conference call from the Oval Office with a group of college journalists.

In a wide-ranging conversation on education, health care, the economy and occasionally college football, Obama told The Daily and other publications on the call that the current generation of students in America will emerge from the economic downturn with job opportunities and the chance to build for themselves a “great” generation.

“If you think about it, what we called the greatest generation, my grandparents’ generation, they had a situation where unemployment reached 30 percent,” the president said, “and they ended up essentially building the entire American middle class to what it was and making this the most powerful economy in the world.”

But it’s not that easy. The United States ranks 12th in college graduation rates, and the economic downturn has only made it more difficult for students to pay for higher education. Obama said his administration is taking steps to make college more affordable.

“The single most important step we can take is to make sure that every young person gets the best education possible,” he said, “because countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow.”

The president said more than $60 billion in federal loan subsidies is being redirected to support community colleges and eight million students. Also, he said, the administration is tripling the investment in college tax credits for middle-class families.

The president repeatedly touted his recent health care bill, the Affordable Care Act, which allows people to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26. “And that obviously provides relief to a lot of young people who are looking maybe at their first job not providing health insurance,” he said.

At the same time, Obama urged universities to disclose how students’ tuitions are spent so that students may “have some good understanding” of the use of their payments. “There should be a pie chart at every university that says, out of every dollar you spend in tuition, here’s where your money is going,” Obama said.

Calling the Senate’s failure last week to pass the DREAM Act a “setback,” the president emphasized his administration’s backing of the bill, which would grant permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and wish to pursue higher education or service in the American armed forces.

“Their parents brought them here,” Obama said of young undocumented immigrants. “They may not have been documented, but they have, for all intents and purposes, grown up as American young people.”

Responding to questions about health care costs and rising tuition, Obama continually referred back to the strength of the economy as his administration’s number-one priority.

“One of the things that I can do to help is to make sure that the economy is growing,” he said. “States then are taking in more tax revenue…then they don’t have to try to pass on increased costs to students because they can maintain levels of support to institutions of higher learning.”

The president plans to hold a rally today at the University of Wisconsin in Madison to mobilize young voters before the November elections in a battleground state he won handily in November 2008.

“I love Madison because when I was just out of college…I used to drive up there and have fun times,” Obama said, “which I can’t discuss in detail with you.”

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