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President Barack Obama unveils plans to make higher education more affordable, during visit to local area

WELCOME TO BUFFALO — United States President Barack Obama spoke at the University at Buffalo 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 and Lizz Schumer.

BUFFALO — 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.

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.

While those crowds were lining up outside the stadium, Springville native Dave Field was waiting at Buffalo International Airport for a plane he said he has seen 11 times, following through three countries and several presidents.

“I’ve just always had a fascination with presidential planes,” Field said. “I was able to board the plane that flew JFK from Dallas and LBJ was inaugurated on. It is on display in Dayton, Ohio.”

Field was waiting on Aero Drive, when a spotter in Arcade told him the plane was on its way in, 15 minutes early. This was the first time Field saw the plane touch down.

“It was very cool to see it land, and I got closer to it this time than I ever have before,” he said, of his spot about a quarter mile from the approach and 200 yards from where Obama deplaned. “The only other time I saw it in flight was when it flew over Springville the last time the president came to Buffalo.”

While Field watched Air Force One touch down, UB President Satish Tripathi expressed excitement about welcoming the president back to Western New York.

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.”

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 was greeted by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and New York Congressman Brian Higgins.

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.

THE EAGLE HAS LANDED — Springville’s Dave Field watched Air Force One touch down at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. The enthusiast has followed the plane across three countries. Photo submitted by Field.

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.”

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 WNY 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 community is focused on the future and because “the young people here are committed to their education.”

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.”

After referencing the financial struggles unique to Western New York, including the decline of the steel industry and struggles of smaller, agriculture-dependent towns such as Springville and Concord and the work ethic that characterizes Western New York residents, the president 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.”

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 what he called “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 on time.

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.”

The president called on state legislatures to step up, to help keep costs down. “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 new reforms that will “shake up the current system” and “make higher education a higher priority.”

He unveiled a proposed three-step plan, which includes tying financial aid to college value, challenging states to fund public colleges based on performance and holding students receiving financial 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, “As we’re expecting more from schools, we’ll 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.”

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 [Western New York] 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.”

Students across Western New York returned to college, this week.

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