At UT, Obama Talks Education — And The Luck Of The Longhorns

There are more than 2,500 accredited colleges and universities in the United States. Of all of them, President Obama today chose The University of Texas to talk about his key higher education initiatives as his term nears its midpoint.

And the Longhorns appreciated him for it, judging by the elation of students who waited hours for the golden ticket to see him speak at Gregory Gym. One member of the crowd of 3,500 even shouted, “We love you!” as he got onstage.

“I love you back!” Obama said playfully after flashing the Hook ’em Horns sign. He went on to reminisce about visiting Austin and UT in 2007 and 2008 as a candidate, getting a tour of the stadium from Mack Brown and rubbing the horns in the locker room for good luck. 

UT still being UT — stocked with politically conscious activists — the president today faced protesters outside. People called out for an end to war or carried signs about helping the gulf coast.

Nobody, however, protested against the day’s message for affordable, accessible higher education.

During a recession like this one, education is more vital than ever, Obama asserted. “Education is an economic issue,” he said. “Education is the economic issue of our time.”

The unemployment rate for the non-college-educated is twice that of college grads, he said, and soon eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or higher ed.

The United States achieved the world’s highest rate of college graduates a generation ago but has since fallen behind 11 other countries, Obama said. He called for America to produce 8 million more college graduates by 2020. 

To do this, the president first advocated making college more affordable (through bigger grants, controlled costs, and simplified financial aid applications).

He then called for investing in community colleges, as well as colleges that have traditionally educated minorities (and here he gave Huston-Tillotson and St. Edward’s a shout-out).

Finally, he pushed for boosting graduation rates, noting that one-third of all college students and half of all minority college students do not achieve a degree within six years.

Though Obama is speaking at Democratic fundraisers while in Texas, his 25-minute speech largely avoided partisanship, never mentioning the word Democrat or Republican. He did jab at “the minority party” for resisting efforts to reduce subsidies to big banks to offer student loans.

But he closed with a transcendent quote spoken by Ashbel Smith, chairman of the board of regents, when the cornerstone of UT’s first Main Building was laid. Smith’s words could stir the heart of anyone, Longhorn or otherwise, who has benefited from education: “Smite the rocks with the rod of knowledge, and fountains of unstinted wealth will gush forth.”

“That promise is why so many of you are seeking a college education in the first place,” the president said as cell phones were held straight up, flashbulbs popped, and the crowd cheered.

Top: President Obama flashes the Hook ’em while walking onstage at Gregory Gym, Aug. 9, 2010. Middle: UT students elatedly greet and photograph Obama. Photos by Marsha Miller/UT Public Affairs. Bottom: Candidate Obama holds a custom Longhorn jersey during a visit to the Forty Acres. Photo by Jim Sigmon/UT Athletics.  


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