ANN ARBOR -- About 60 percent of new jobs in the coming decade will require workers with a higher education, President Obama told a crowd at the University of Michigan on Friday. But the growing expense of higher education threatens to undermine access to college, he said.
The President laid out his plan to control skyrocketing tuition costs and also challenged colleges, state governments, and Congress to do their part.
"We are putting colleges on notice," he said. "You can't assume that you'll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can't stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down."
Such tough talk drew big applause from the crowd of mostly college students at the university's Al Glick Field House.
The speech capped a three-day tour to promote economic initiatives introduced during Mr. Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday. He rehashed many of those proposals Friday, emphasizing the importance of manufacturing and renewable energy in rebuilding the nation's economy. Those election-year proposals are likely to appeal to young people and working families, but many of the plans -- including most of his higher education proposals -- will depend on approval from Congress, where Republicans control the House of Representatives.
The average college graduate owed $24,000 in 2010 and student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt, he said.
Nationally, average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges rose 8.3 percent last fall and, with room and board, exceed $17,000 a year, according to the College Board.
Mr. Obama acknowledged that many universities are raising tuition because of cuts in state funding. He said more than 40 states slashed funding last year.
To help address that problem, he proposed a "Race to the Top" program similar to his K-12 initiative. States would compete for monetary awards based on how well they use federal dollars.
"We're telling the states, 'If you can find new ways to bring down the cost of college and make it easier for more students to graduate, we'll help you do it,' " Mr. Obama said.
As in other recent speeches, the President adopted a confrontational tone toward Congress, challenging legislators to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling in July, to extend tuition tax credits permanently, and to double the number of work-study jobs within five years. He called for report cards that would grade universities on the value of their education.
Although higher education was the main focus, Mr. Obama framed his speech with broader themes about fairness and opportunity, including his call for Congress to extend temporary payroll tax cuts and increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
"This is part of the idea of shared responsibility," he said, later adding, "if we all understand that we've got to pay for this stuff, it makes sense for those of us who've done best to do our fair share."
Though charged at times, the President's speech was relatively informal. He often joked about college life and stopped to banter with students at several points during his 33-minute speech. He said he could relate to them because he and his wife had to pay back student loans.
Those in the audience reacted enthusiastically for the most part.
"He's kind of preaching to the choir," said Josh Levenson, who is financing his freshman year at UM with a student loan. But while he agreed with Mr. Obama's proposals, he was skeptical about their odds of becoming law.
"It's hard with Congress the way it is to make anything happen," the 18-year-old from Westport, Conn., man said. "I feel like he's kind of powerless and it's a shame."
Students at the Ann Arbor campus saw a 6.7 percent increase in tuition last year, UM's 2011 financial report said. Tuition at Toledo-area colleges and universities has risen at lower rates than the national average. Bowling Green State University and the University of Toledo increased tuition 3.5 percent last year. Lourdes College, a private college in Sylvania, raised tuition 3 percent.
"I'm pleased that the President of the United States is interested in higher education and the cost of higher education," said Mary Ellen Mazey, president of Bowling Green State University.
The average BGSU student graduates with $31,515 in loan debt, which Ms. Mazey attributed to the university's high percentage -- 38 percent -- of first-generation students. The university has put together an efficiency task force to keep down, Ms. Mazey said.
Dr. Lloyd Jacobs, president of the University of Toledo, called higher education "the only way out of the economic mess we find ourselves in."
"It seems to me to be relevant that these comments followed immediately after his comments on manufacturing," he said.
Indeed, Mr. Obama linked higher education and manufacturing, noting that the manufacturing sector of the future will require a highly trained work force. That theme was reinforced by the location -- about 50 miles from Detroit and Toledo, two traditional Midwest manufacturing hubs -- and by the large banner hanging behind the President that read, "An America Built to Last."
At the same time, Dr. Jacobs said higher education could learn something from manufacturing. "We need to learn lean manufacturing techniques," he said. "We've got to get our cost of production down."
Although Lourdes College doesn't receive state funding, President Robert Helmer said Mr. Obama's proposals regarding financial aid and work-study programs would benefit students at his school too.
"I think the subject of the discussion is an important one. We all have a responsibility to keep costs as low as possible," he said. "The most important thing is that people get into higher education and get that degree. The jobs of the future are going to require it."
Blade wire services contributed to this report.
Contact Tony Cook at: email@example.com or 419-724-6065.