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President Obama introduces proposal to make higher education more affordable at Syracuse high school

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SYRACUSE – At one end of the Henninger High School gymnasium Thursday night hung the championship banners of scholastic sports; at the other, large American flags flanking a podium with the presidential seal.

The gym, redolent with the sweat of competitions past, was filled with a different kind of excitement as spectators awaited the arrival of President Barack Obama, who delivered a speech here as part of a two-day bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania to promote his plan to make higher education more affordable.

Ahead of the president’s arrival, a recent graduate of a Syracuse area high school, Marissa Jones, sang the national anthem and the crowd said the pledge of allegiance. A school band played jazz standards as the room filled with more than 1,300 people who stood or sat chattering and waiting.

The line to get into the building stretched out of sight in this quiet, working class neighborhood near the heart of the city.

After brief remarks from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Mr. Obama was introduced by Emilio Ortiz, a rising senior at Corcoran High School, one of the five high schools in the Syracuse City School District.

Mr. Obama began with a roundup of his administration’s efforts to help the economy recover from recession before a pair of hecklers with a sign reading “Free Bradley Manning” interrupted and were removed.

Undaunted, Mr. Obama said the woman who spoke out during his speech was one of the more polite protesters he has encountered. The Post-Standard reported that one of the hecklers was former Green Party congressional candidate Ursula Rozum, who ran for the 24th District seat and finished third behind Dan Maffei, D-Syracuse, and former Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-Onondaga Hill.

Mr. Obama then began to introduce his proposal by highlighting the difficulties the latest generation of Americans face when trying to pay for college. The average tuition at a four-year college has increased by 250 percent over the past three decades while the typical family income has increased by only 16 percent, according to the White House.

At the same time, a college education has never been more important, Mr. Obama said.

“More than ever before, some form of higher education — two year, four year, technical college — that’s the path into the middle class,” Mr. Obama said. “The fact is, college has never been more necessary, but it’s also never been more expensive.”

Mr. Obama emphasized the point that graduating seniors leave college with an average debt of $26,000.

“And a lot of young people owe more than that,” he said.

Declaring education to be a key to expanding the economy and strengthening the middle class, Mr. Obama unveiled a three point proposal, which includes a new rating system for colleges based on access, affordability, and graduation rates; an effort to encourage schools to embrace innovation like online education and partnerships between high schools and colleges; and a renewed emphasis on a program designed to help graduates manage the debt they have already incurred.

According to the White House, the federal government provides more than $150 billion each year in student financial aid, including $9.7 billion to higher education institutions in New York through Pell Grants, undergraduate federal loans, graduate and parent federal student loans, and campus-based aid.

Right now, most of these resources are given to colleges based on the number of students they enroll, not on the number who earn degrees, the White House said.

The first part of Mr. Obama’s proposal would direct the Department of Education to compare colleges with similar missions and reward the colleges that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the colleges that improve their own performance with a higher rating on the College Scorecard. The ratings would be derived at after public hearings with students, parents, college administrators and state officials from around the country and would be based on:

n Access, determined in large part by the number of students receiving financial aid

n Affordability, based on average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt

n Graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees received by a college’s graduates

The new ratings would be recorded before the 2015 school year. After the ratings are refined over a four-year period, Mr. Obama said, his administration will ask for legislation from Congress that would tie federal financial aid to a school’s rating on the scorecard.

The second part of the proposal aims to encourage innovation and competition among schools by taking advantage of recent trends in higher education such as three-year accelerated degree programs; massive open online courses, or MOOCs; and “flipped” classrooms where students watch lectures at home and are tested on the material in the classroom.

“We’re going to make sure that no matter who you are or where you come from or who you love, or what your last name is ... in the United States you can make it if you try,” Mr. Obama said, as the Bruce Springsteen song “Land of Hopes and Dreams” began playing and the president entered the crowd to shake hands.

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