WELCOME TO BUFFALO — United States President Barack Obama spoke at the University at Buffalo on Aug. 22, kicking off his New York and Pennsylvania tour and revealing a three-step plan to make college more affordable to the middle class. Photos by Jessie Owen.
HAMBURG — The president of the United States kicked off a trip through New York and Pennsylvania at the University at Buffalo, using his time at the local state school to divulge a three-step system that he said will make college more affordable, especially for those in the middle class.
MAKING HISTORY — Alumni Arena at the University at Buffalo was tricked out, in anticipation of the president’s appearance.
Crowds gathered outside UB early in the morning on Aug. 22, to get a glimpse of America’s 44th president, Barack Obama, who last visited Buffalo in May 2010.
Media outlets were earliest on the scene, setting up their equipment, staking out spots on the high risers and keeping the public updated about the events via social media, with the official hashtag #POTUSBuffalo.
While Air Force One headed to Buffalo International Airport, UB President Satish Tripathi expressed excitement about welcoming the president back to Western New York.
MR. PRESIDENT — A security detail helps the president work his way through the crowd of people eager to shake hands or grab a photo.
As 5,000 freshmen students were arriving at UB, Tripathi said that he was happy to also be hosting so many officials at the school, including SUNY representatives and United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
“Together, we are making history,” Tripathi said. “UB is deeply proud to host President Obama, today.”
The school chief reminded attendees that, while UB has hosted seven former presidents, this was the first time since 1853 that the school has welcomed a sitting U.S. president. “You can imagine how proud we are, today,” he said. “You are a part of history in the making.”
Obama stepped onto Buffalo land at 10:26 a.m. and was greeted by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and New York Congressman Brian Higgins.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Duncan preceded Obama to the UB podium and thanked the local university “for the example you’re setting. The president and I are thrilled to be here.”
UB sophomore Silvana D’Ettorre of Grand Island, whom UB called “America’s most famous college student today,” introduced the president.
“We are tremendously honored to host President Barack Obama, so he can share with us such an important speech on the higher education in the United States,” she said. “I know we all firmly believe that our country has the best colleges and universities in the world.”
The student spoke about her dream to attend UB, about her family’s encouragement and support and about her goals for the future, which she said include dental school.
“With that, I am so proud to introduce you now to the President of the United States, Barack Obama.”
To the tune of “Hail to the Chief,” and amidst cheers and applause, the president shook hands with and greeted attendees and embraced D’Ettorre, before taking the stage.
“Hello, Buffalo!” he said. “Go Bulls! It is good to be back in Buffalo.”
The president thanked WNY officials for welcoming him to Buffalo and, after a gaffe in which he referred to Higgins as the city’s mayor, he joked, “This is what happens when you get to be 52.”
Obama also expressed his gratitude to all of the UB students in attendance, for “taking a minute from setting up your futons and mini fridges” to meet the president.
“I understand that the last sitting president to speak here was Millard Fillmore, who was also the chancellor of UB,” Obama said, “which sounds fun, but I already have enough on my plate.”
Obama said that he chose to kick off his northern tour in Buffalo, because the UB community is focused on the future and because “the young people here are committed to their education.” He also joked that “everybody here must be fearless,” because the school’s football team will be kicking off the season against No. 2-ranked Ohio State.
Obama segued into his goals for education, by listing the steps he has taken, during the past 4 1/2 years. He alluded to the more than 7 million new jobs that have been created in the past few months and spoke about falling deficits. “Thanks to the resilience of the American people, we’ve cleared away the rubble from our financial crisis and have started to rebuild,” he said. “But we’re not where we need to be, yet.”
The president described the financial struggle that he said many American families are experiencing and said that “reversing this trend is my highest priority.” He added that the American government should be creating more pathways into the middle class and make more of an effort to “give everybody who works hard the chance to pursue their own level of happiness.”
MEET AND GREET — President Barack Obama is pictured, greeting attendees, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his family, after speaking at the University at Buffalo.
Obama praised America’s students for making an investment in their futures. “Some form of higher education is the surest path into the middle class,” he said. “But the soaring cost of higher education is a burden to American families. College has never been more expensive.”
While Obama said that the average tuition for a public, four-year-college has risen by more than 250 percent, he added that the average family’s annual income has gone up by only 16 percent. “That’s a big gap,” he said, “and not enough colleges are figuring out how to cut back costs. Taxpayers end up paying the price.”
Citing the average publicly-educated college graduate’s debt to be $26,000, Obama said that even if students do everything they can to make good grades in high school, earn scholarships and obtain grants, they still come out of college with “crushing debt. That makes it hard to start a family and buy a home. Parents are dipping into savings that should be going to their retirement, to pay for their son or daughter’s education.”
The president said that this financial situation leaves many young people with a tough decision: to either not go to college and risk affecting the rest of their lives with a sub-par education, or to go to school and face not being able to pay their loans.
“I paid off my bills when I was in my 40s,” he said. “Michelle and I ... should have been saving up for Malia and Sasha, but we were paying off our own debts.”
Obama said that he wants to make it easier for the 37 million Americans with outstanding federal student loans to become debt-free. The Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan now caps loan payments at 10 percent of an individual’s monthly income. “Democrats and Republicans have worked together to keep loan rates from doubling,” he said. “It’s a good start, but it’s not enough. The costs are still going up. At some point, the government will run out of money.”
KEEPING THE PEACE — The president’s arrival in Buffalo called for a heightened police presence, both at the university and on the streets.
The president called on state legislatures to step up. “College cannot keep increasing costs, year after year,” he said. “The system’s current trajectory is not sustainable. The economy cannot afford trillions of dollars of student loans.”
Obama said that, in his effort to keep higher education from being a luxury available to only the upper class, he is proposing major new reforms that will “shake up the current system” and “make higher education a higher priority.”
He unveiled his three-step plan, which includes tying financial aid to college value, challenging states to fund public colleges based on performance and holding students and colleges receiving student aid responsible for making progress toward a degree. He said that a new rating system will be unveiled before the start of the 2015 school year. “I will be working with Congress to use these ratings to decide how to allocate funding for publicly-funded schools,” he said. “It’s time to stop subsidizing schools that are not seeing good results. We will be looking for new ways to fund colleges that drive better results.”
He challenged, “We’ll [also] expect more from students. Students receiving money from taxpayers must complete their courses before receiving grants for the next semester. If you are in debt and do not finish your degree, you will not be able to pay off your debts.”
THANKS FOR COMING — The crowds of people leaving Alumni Stadium after the president’s speech caught a glimpse of the presidential motorcade, heading to Syracuse. Photo by Springville Journal Editor Lizz Schumer.
Obama said that his ultimate goal is to stop student loans from hindering graduates in their quests to start families, take their dream jobs or buy homes. “The government needs to stop thinking of student loans as a way to earn money,” he said.
He also called on Congress to open the Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan to more students and to spread the word about that program.
“If we do this, we will help more students afford college and graduate,” he said, about his new education plan. “It will take a lot of hard work, but the folks in Buffalo know something about hard work.
“We’ve come a long way in four years,” he concluded. “Here in America, you can make it, if you try.”