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Obama's College Affordability Speech Resonates In Light Of Michigan Education Cuts

First Posted: 01/27/2012 12:13 pm Updated: 01/27/2012 12:53 pm

Addressing an enthusiastic audience at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor Friday, President Barack Obama spoke about college affordability, a topic that hits home in a state with some of the highest public school tuition costs in the country.

Echoing his State of the Union address earlier this week, Obama called on public universities to reign in tuition increases, highlighting a merit-based plan that would tie federal funding for colleges and universities to tuition costs.

"We should push colleges to do better," Obama said. "We should hold them accountable if they don't."

Obama also asked states to make education a bigger priority, noting 40 states cut school funding in the last year.

Michigan is among those states. Gov. Rick Snyder cut state funding for higher education by 15 percent last year, and threatened to cut schools' funding even more if they raised tuition more than 7 percent.

Most Michigan universities kept their cost increases just barely below the limit. In Detroit, undergraduate students at Wayne State University faced a 6.9 percent tuition increase for the 2011-2012 academic year. A WSU release blamed the increase directly on the state funding cuts, saying the $1,000 per-student-cut could only partially be covered by higher tuition.

A study by the non-partisan group Center for Michigan showed on average, students at 12 of Michigan's 15 public colleges and universities paid more for college tuition in the last decade than students attending public schools in other states. (Wayne State University, U-M Dearborn and U-M Flint students paid less on average.)

In December, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman wrote a letter to Obama urging states to reinvest in education. In it, she called Michigan's public four-year institutions "ground zero for funding cuts." She noted U-M cut $235 million from operational costs in the last eight years.

U-M students involved with the local branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement have also protested the high cost of their tuition.

The day before Coleman released her letter to Obama, Occupy U-M activists told a Board of Regents meeting that U-M is run like a business and sells education only to those who can afford it.

Members of Occupy Detroit also protested the cost of higher education at a rally in November, targeting banks and Wall Street and asking for relief from student loans.

Emily Eisele, one of the protesters and a recent graduate of WSU, is working to pay back $42,000 in student loans, an even greater challenge after she was recently laid off from her job at a non-profit.

"I had this spirit of self-sufficiency," she told HuffPost in November. But that has changed since graduating: "I'm this close to defaulting and I feel like my life is ruined."

In his Friday speech, Obama placed the national average for student loan debt at $24,000.

"I am only standing here today because scholarships and student loans gave me a shot at a decent education," he said. "Michelle and I can still remember how long it took us to pay back our student loans."

"Since most of you were born, tuition and fees have more than doubled," he added. "That forces students like you take out more loans and rack up more debt."

Obama said his administration is addressing the issue of college affordability by increasing federal student aid. He called for Congress to stop the interest rates on student loans from rising, extend the tuition tax cut and double work-study jobs in the next five years.

He also announced federal funding for state higher education institutions would shift to a model along the lines of Race To The Top, the federal grant competition for states seeking K-12 funding.

And according to the Michigan Daily, there's a chance that Michigan's state funding for higher education in the coming year might be tied to performance metrics like graduation and retention rates.

But critics of Race To The Top say it would hurt higher education the same way it's hurt elementary education. Nina Chacker, a teacher in Detroit Public Schools and member of Occupy Detroit's Direct Action committee, said policies that tie school funding to performance only "widen the achievement gap."

"They want to reward K-12 schools that already have the resources to be successful, while penalizing 'underperforming' schools that need the help most," Chacker wrote in an email to HuffPost. "It's the same with higher education."

"I appreciate that the president wants to hold top administrators accountable for keeping education affordable by holding federal funding over their heads," Chacker said, "but at some point we need to be more critical about where the funding at every level is going instead of expecting it to magically reappear."

Democrats in the Michigan Senate have another approach to making college affordable. Earlier this month, they announced a new plan, still in the works, to provide MIchigan high school graduates with grants up to $38,000 to pay for four years of tuition and costs at state universities and community colleges.

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