Obama on Higher Education: "College Is Still the Clearest Path Into the Middle Class"

Jun 11, 2014 | By Holly Johnson
Article Sources


1. "Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say," David Leonhardt, The New York Times, May 27, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/27/upshot/is-college-worth-it-clearly-new-data-say.html?_r=0
2. "Obama has tough love for young people in Tumblr student loan chat," Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News, June 10, 2014, http://news.yahoo.com/obama-has-tough-love-for-young-people-in-tumblr-student-loan-chat-214118358.html
3. "Skills, education, and the rise of earnings inequality among the "other 99 percent," David H. Autor, Science, May 23, 2014, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6186/843.full


President Obama conveyed his message loud and clear during Tuesday's live chat on Tumblr, stating, "A college education is the clearest path into the middle class for most Americans." Despite the difficulty students face figuring out how to pay for college, Obama hopes to squash concerns over whether a college degree is still a good investment, pointing out that college graduates make $28,000 more per year on average than those without a degree.

Tumblr founder David Karp, who moderated the discussion, argued that he never finished college, but Obama stayed firm, arguing that Karp's success story is the exception rather than the rule.

"If you can do it, more power to you," Obama said. "There are only going to be so many Zuckerbergs or Gates who will be able to short-circuit the traditional path."

A growing body of research seems to back up President Obama's claims that a college degree is still worth the financial burden for students. According to data based on an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, the pay gap between college graduates and other employees was at a record high last year -- college graduates earned 98 percent more per hour than those without a degree, the study showed.

In addition, an article recently published in the journal Science argued that a college degree was actually "more than free," when students factor in the increased earnings college graduates enjoy over the course of their lifetimes. In other words, the financial consequences of not going to college could be far worse than earning an expensive four-year degree, even if you borrow money to pay for it. The costs of higher education are inarguably expensive, notes the research, but a lifetime of low earnings is even more so.

During the Q&A, Obama also cautioned that while college is a solid investment in the future, young people aren't always going to be able to follow their bliss right away. And though a traditional four-year degree might be a good choice for many students, others should consider a trade school, if that's what interests them more. (See: Is Online College Cheaper?). He also stressed the idea of personal responsibility when it comes to higher education. 

"At some point, it's up to a young person to drive that education," Obama said. It's not inevitable that you fasten your seatbelt and go on a ride for four years or two years."

The Tumblr appearance served as a platform for Obama to not only address the rising costs of higher education, but also share his administration's plans for education funding reform. Next week, the Senate will vote on a bill that, if passed, would allow those with student loan debt to refinance their loans at today's rates. Other measures are currently in the works as well, the president noted, including a new college ratings system that would help students determine which schools offer a good value for each education dollar. Obama also discussed the recently issued executive order aimed at extending income-based payment options retroactively to those who took out student loans before 2011.

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