Obama touts higher education plan in Scranton

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SCRANTON, Pa. -- President Barack Obama wrapped up the debut of his plan to make higher education more affordable here, where the crowd applauded as he described broadening access to education as a way to restore a "sense of upward mobility" in the United States.

"We can't price the middle class and everybody working to get into the middle class out of a college education," Mr. Obama said. "Higher education is not a luxury -- it's an economic necessity. And every American should be able to afford it."

Standing in the gymnasium at Lackawanna College, a two-year institution, beside Vice President Joe Biden, a Scranton native, Mr. Obama said the steep rise in college tuition -- alongside much lower increases in income for a typical family -- has made it increasingly difficult for young people to afford college.

He called for colleges to contain tuition increases and state legislatures to appropriate money for higher education. And he repeated the proposals from his tour Thursday and earlier Friday through upstate New York about the role the federal government could play.

Mr. Obama said his administration will devise a system for rating colleges according to their affordability and success at producing graduates who find jobs, and then push to direct a greater portion of federal aid to institutions that rank well.

He also proposed expanding the portion of students eligible for a program that caps loan payments as a percentage of income.

The audience was a friendly one -- there was applause when Mr. Obama spoke of his health care law and laughter at a veiled reference to his recent Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, supporting a similar law in Massachusetts -- and they responded warmly to the proposals.

After the event, Nyssa Zaccheo, 22, said she appreciated what the president had to say, although changes would come too late to help with the $80,000 in debt she said she accumulated at Penn State University. Ms. Zaccheo, a social studies education major, said she lives at home in Scranton and works as a substitute teacher.

"A lot of things I'd like to do I can't because I have so much money I have to pay," she said.

Ms. Zaccheo became engaged in June, but with much of her paycheck going to loans, she said she expects to wait years to save the money for a wedding.

Her fiance, George Degilio, 23, said he will soon have to begin repaying his own loans from Bloomsburg University, though he is still looking for work.

"People get out of college, they're treading water," he said. "It's almost not even worth it a lot of the time."

While Mr. Obama's tour has focused on money in higher education, he drew attention in Pennsylvania political circles for a remark about overall education funding in the state.

"States have been cutting back on their higher education budgets," Mr. Obama said during his speech. "And let's face it, here in Pennsylvania there have been brutal cuts to not just higher education, but education generally."

Democrats in Harrisburg have been unyielding in accusing Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett of slashing education funding. The Corbett administration responds that reductions to primary and secondary schools were a result of federal stimulus money running out. Education funding comes from more than one line in the state budget, and the two sides count different items to support their cases.

"If the president is looking for someone to blame for education cuts, he should grab a mirror," Mike Barley, Mr. Corbett's campaign manager, said in a statement. "It's his one-time funds from the failed stimulus package that artificially increased the education budget to unsustainable levels."

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Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazete.com or 717-787-2141.


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