White House press secretary Josh Earnest was answering a Fordham University student’s question regarding sexual assault reporting on her campus when an obnoxious screech filled the White House Briefing Room.
“That’s never happened before,” Earnest told the approximately 50 college reporters staring bug-eyed at him, a momentary social-media-ceasefire taking hold as the noise tapered off.
In the aisles flanking the student reporters, members of the White House press corps let out a chuckle; the seasoned journalists had donated their highly coveted assigned briefing room seats to their younger counterparts for this occasion.
“I hear there’s some hotshot journalists here,” said President Barack Obama, striding into the briefing room for a surprise appearance to conclude the White House’s first-ever College Reporter Day last week.
During the inaugural event, student reporters representing schools across 28 states convened in Washington, D.C., to engage with senior administration officials on issues pertinent to college campuses, including student loan debt and Title IX initiatives.
“I heard you guys were around today, so I wanted to stop by and say hello,” Obama said, flashing a smile at the crowd. “I also have a bit of breaking news for you.”
At the ensuing press conference, Obama announced that his administration is aiming to enroll 2 million more people in Pay As You Earn, a program that caps the amount borrowers repay on their student loans to 10 percent of their monthly income, by April 2017.
Nearly 5 million student borrowers are now enrolled in income-driven repayment plans like Pay As You Earn – up from 700,000 in 2011, according to U.S. Secretary of Education John King.
In a press call the day before, Richard Cordray, director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said about 43 million Americans have student loan debts. In Virginia alone, there are more than 350,000 federal student loan borrowers – totaling more than $10.5 million in outstanding debt.
Nationwide, the volume of outstanding federal student loan debt has doubled in less than a decade to about $1.3 trillion.
“That is more, in fact, than any other category of consumer debt in America except mortgages,” Cordray said.
That’s partially why the U.S. Department of Education created StudentLoans.gov/repay – an online system intended to help borrowers better understand their repayment options in a “consistent, accurate, actionable and transparent” manner.
King also spoke with the students at Thursday’s College Reporter Day and reminded them of the value of a four-year degree.
He said that over a lifetime, an individual with a bachelor’s degree can earn up to $1 million more than someone with only a high school degree.
“It’s debt that pays you back,” King said. “I know personally, because although I was recently sworn in as secretary of education, I am still paying off my graduate school loans that helped me to get here.”
King said that since 2008, the Obama administration has doubled investments in grant and scholarship aid through Pell grants and tax credits and created repayment programs such as Pay As You Earn. Such initiatives have helped more than 1 million more African American and Hispanic students go to college, he said.
At the press conference, Obama said college affordability is one of his priorities.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done in education to make sure that millions of kids who previously couldn’t afford to go to college can,” he said.
The president also discussed his initiative to provide federal funding to help states make the first two years of community college free for “hard-working” students.
“This is something achievable,” Obama said. “Now, Congress has not moved on our proposal. But what we’ve also seen is that there have been 27 jurisdictions around the country that have taken us up on this challenge and are doing it themselves – are figuring out ways to make this happen.”
One such jurisdiction is Tennessee, where Republican Gov. Bill Haslam launched the Tennessee Promise program last fall. It has provided thousands of students with a free two years of community college or technical education out of high school.
“If there’s a Republican governor in the state of Tennessee who can make this program work in his state, why shouldn’t Democrats and Republicans work together in Washington to give that opportunity to every American?” Earnest asked in the press briefing before Obama took the podium.
Obama said it will be hard to sustain these initiatives if the cost of college “keeps on going up as fast as it’s going up.”
Earnest said too many state governments, “in their zeal to cut government spending,” are reducing support for public colleges and universities.
“That is a really poor choice,” Earnest said. “And what many college administrators legitimately say is, ‘Look, I’m getting less support from the state government, and if I want to continue to provide a high-quality education to the student body, I’ve got to get that money from somewhere.’”
For Obama, college affordability is more than just another domestic policy.
“Probably the thing I’m most proud of is – mainly as the assistant to Michelle Obama – I’ve raised two daughters who are amazing and I’m really, really proud of,” Obama told the college journalists. “And being able to do that while still focused on my job, I think, is something I’ll look back on and appreciate.”
Three days after hosting College Reporter Day, the White House announced that Malia Obama, who is graduating from high school, has decided to attend Harvard University beginning in fall 2017. Malia, 17, is the older of the Obamas’ daughters. She has opted to take a gap year before leaving for college.
Executive Editor, Sarah King
Sarah is a junior studying political science and philosophy of law. She is a copyeditor for INK Magazine and reporter for the Capital News Service wire. Last spring, Sarah worked as an editorial intern for Congressional Quarterly Researcher and SAGE Business Researcher in Washington, D.C. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn