INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Facing a receptive crowd of mostly college students, a shirt-sleeved President Barack Obama repeated calls for two years of free tuition to community college and more job-training for the middle class on Friday.
The president covered a range of topics – from basketball to infrastructure -- during a town hall-style meeting on the main campus of Ivy Tech Community College, but he returned to the theme of boosting Americans' economic fortunes.
“Are we going to be a nation where a few of us do spectacularly well, or where everybody has opportunity?” he asked rhetorically, having answered a question about his No. 1 priority for his last two years office.
They are, he said, “to make sure people’s wages and income are going up.”
Obama's message was targeted to an intended audience - Ivy Tech students who cobble together loans, savings and scholarships to afford two-year degrees that serve as pathways to jobs or more college.
Obama told his audience that he wanted to make it easier for students like them to leave school without the “bonds of debt” that burdened him and his wife, Michelle, when they left college.
He offered details of his budget proposal to make two years of community college free, saying that students need to work hard to earn the support by completing their degrees and maintaining a 2.5 grade point average.
He also said community colleges need to get better at keeping students focused on coursework and training that translate into good jobs.
“We’re not just working to make our community colleges free,” the president said. “We want to make them better and more responsive.”
Obama also hailed the apprenticeships increasingly being offered to Ivy Tech students in partnership with Indiana companies. On average, he noted, those students walk into jobs with $50,000 starting salaries.
And, in response to a grandmother in the audience who said she's saving money for her grandchildren to go to college, Obama talked his of decision not to eliminate tax breaks on the popular “529” college savings plans that he says are most used by higher-end earners.
Republicans have criticized Obama's community college tuition plan as too costly. It carries a price tag of $60 billion over the next decade, with federal and state governments picking up the tab.
Obama told the Ivy Tech audience that the proposal, dubbed America's College Promise, can be covered by closing a tax loophole for the wealthiest 1 percent and raising fees imposed on financial institutions that borrow heavily.
“Right now the stock market has gone up (and) corporate profits are at an all-time high,” the said. “Corporate balance sheets have never been better in history.”
The setting for his speech was friendly.
Ivy Tech President Tom Snyder is a regular White House visitor and has called Obama’s tuition plan “a huge benefit” for working families struggling to pay their children’s college costs.
Sitting behind the president were students who included Marlene Aguilar, 18, who is on Ivy Tech’s fast-track to earn an associate’s degree by May. Aguilar said she’s the first in her family to graduate high school. She said she never imagined that she’d be sitting so close to the president of the United States.
Aguilar and her family have scraped to put together her tuition, she said, but she thinks it’s worth it. “Better to be broke now than broke in the future,” she said.
She plans to transfer her Ivy Tech credits to a four-year college, with hopes of becoming an accountant or lawyer.
“My parents just want me to keep going, to do whatever it takes to have a successful life,” she said. “I know it’s going to be hard. I just hope I can make it.”
Aguilar was one of the first students invited to the speech just days after Snyder’s assistant got a call on his cell phone from the White House. The president’s staff asked if she could track down her boss to see if he could accommodate a visit.
His answer: “We’d love to have you!”
The president spent just a few hours in Indiana with a bipartisan entourage. It included Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly and now retired Republican Sen. Richard Lugar.
Obama was greeted at the airport by Republican Gov. Mike Pence and introduced at Ivy Tech by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, also a Republican.
Obama acknowledged his presence in a heavily Republican state, saying the only “blue” to be seen is often the color worn by fans of the Indianapolis Colts. He referenced his 2008 win in Indiana, and his subsequent 2012 loss.
“When it comes to elections [in Indiana], I am batting .500,” he said, prompting laughter. “I will acknowledge last time I kind of got smoked in Indiana, but that’s okay. That’s exactly why I wanted to come back.”
In a lighter moment, an audience member said WNBA star Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever was ready to challenge the President to some one-on-one basketball.
Obama deferred saying, “I’ll be honest with you, my game is a little broke.”
Before taking questions, Obama echoed his State of the Union call for less partisanship, saying voters don't appreciate the political “food fight” in Washington, D.C.
He prompted applause in a nod to Lugar, one of the longest serving Republicans in the Senate before his 2012 defeat to a Tea Party candidate. Obama said politicians of all stripes would do well to heed Lugar’s advice to colleagues: “The other party is also patriotic and may have good ideas.”
While Obama’s plan for free community college tuition faces a tough haul in the Republican-controlled Congress, a similar measure in Indiana is also receiving a cool reception from the GOP-controlled Statehouse.
State Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, is proposing an Indiana Promise program that will give scholarships to community college students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average and attend school full-time. Her bill has yet to get a hearing.