State Of The Union's Middle-Class Message Likely To Focus On College Cost

On the eve of President Barack Obama's third State of the Union address, education experts expect the president's address to hit on college affordability, an issue Obama has made a central prong of his re-election campaign's middle-class message -- despite questions about the administration's ability to tangibly help students.

Education Department officials are keeping mum for now on the specifics of the speech's contents, but Obama himself has foreshadowed his college focus: He released a webcast to his supporters last week that previewed the speech's content, saying it would be modeled on his middle-class-focused Kansas speech in December and would focus on "getting people the education and training they need so they're ready to take on the jobs of today and tomorrow."

A look at the administration's schedule alone shows that it has been ramping up the college-cost rhetoric. On Dec. 5, Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan met with college presidents to discuss the issue. Vice President Joe Biden took the college affordability message on the road four times in December and January alone, bringing Duncan along on two of those visits. Duncan himself has hosted several town halls on the subject and plans two more such visits, both in Florida -- a political hotspot and site of the approaching GOP primary -- this week alone.

"They've been talking about college prices," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education. "The administration hasn't given us a sense, though, of where they're heading with this."

As the State of the Union is expected to set the tone of Obama's re-election campaign, the issue of college affordability makes sense: it speaks to middle-class voters' priorities, especially after the highly-visible Occupy Wall Street movement highlighted diminishing economic mobility and how spiraling college costs exacerbate wealth inequity. And the issue of college costs is less divisive -- and more resonant -- than the administration's k-12 education reforms, which involve arcane-sounding governance fixes that have angered some teachers' unions, a significant Obama constituency.

College costs are rising at a rate faster than inflation. States with budget holes are cutting funds for public universities. Tuition keeps hitting record highs, according to a College Board report. Tuition and fees now average over $8,000 for a full-credit load at a public university, an 8 percent increase over last year. This year, the estimated $1 trillion owed in student-loan debt exceeded credit-card debt, leaving 2010 graduates with an average debt of more than $25,000.

But while the Obama administration has made several tweaks to college affordability and expanded Pell Grants, experts say it is much tougher to dramatically reform higher education affordability than K-12, an area where the administration has seen success through programs such as the Race to the Top competition.

Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy, is skeptical of the administration's ability to deliver on its rhetoric.

"Parents don't have money to pay as wages go up, and states are cutting back their support of college, but the administration doesn't have any policy leverage when it comes to lowering costs," Jennings said. "In postsecondary education, the federal government gives its money to students, not institutions."

High school student Abby Pugh had similar concerns during Biden's December stump speech on college affordability in Jacksonville's Fletcher High. "It's exciting that [Biden] came here to our little beach school," she said at the time. "But I'm not sure what, exactly, he can do for us."

Duncan's 2012 Budget proposal on college affordability would create incentives for colleges to lower their costs, but, Jennings said, "that doesn't seem to have gone anywhere yet."

Hartle of the American Council on Education suggested that the administration could minimize the increase in student-loan interest that goes into effect July 1, 2012.

"I hope we see complex policy proposals that acknowledge the complexity of the problem, not a restatement of the things that should be done," said José Cruz, Education Trust's vice president for higher education.

Though the administration generally briefs teachers' unions on the education content of major speeches, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, said it had heard nothing as of Monday afternoon. But the NEA's president Dennis Van Roekel did write Obama a State of the Union wish list of sorts that included an expansion of Head Start and the creation of work-study Pell Grants.

Even before the administration revealed the specifics of the State of the Union, the speech's potential educational content alone yielded a partisan reaction. On Monday morning, the House of Representatives' Education & the Workforce committee -- headed by Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) -- blasted an email titled, "State of the Union Preview: A Backdoor Education Agenda."

The memo condemned the administration's No Child Left Behind waivers. "Despite maintaining power for ... four years, Democrats failed to advance any legislation to rewrite the law," the committee wrote -- despite the fact that Kline at one point broke off bipartisan House NCLB talks.

The memo also took aim at Obama's recently-announced debt relief plan, saying it "provides little incentive for loan borrowers to ever fully repay their debts."

Duncan's press secretary Justin Hamilton responded, "The president has a successful track record on comprehensive national education reform, and we look forward to laying that out in more detail in the state of the union address."