This morning, President Obama addressed a crowd of thousands of college students (I say college students, because Michigan students were joined by students from Eastern Michigan, Washtenaw Community College, and Wayne State). In order to get one of the free tickets to this event, many people set up camps outside of the Michigan Union the night before tickets were released (see the Michigan Daily article). On top of hours-long waits, many arrived at the Al Glick Field House hours ahead of time to find an already crowded venue. However, from the sights and sounds, it seemed to me that the wait was all worth it to listen to Mr. Obama’s remarks regarding his plan to make higher education affordable for the masses.
According to the President, our economy is centered around making stuff, and “Michigan is all about making stuff.” Our country, historically, has invested in education as our economy evolved. Moving from an agricultural state to an industrial one was facilitated by educating the masses and endowing them with technical skills. As we are transitioning into a global and digital economy, Obama calls for us to make that same commitment today. While few people doubt the need for this, the reality we face is one in which the cost of higher education (i.e. trade schools, community colleges, and 2- and 4-year universities) is rising faster than the rate of inflation, making it challenging for the people to be in a position to realize the American Dream. Echoing a theme from Tuesday’s State of the Union address, his vision for affordable higher education will be met by the cooperation of Congress (who needs to stop interest rates from doubling and creating avenues to distribute federal aid), state governments (who need to demonstrate that higher education is a priority by not cutting funding, like 40 have this past year), and universities (who need to keep the cost of education from rising). He also calls upon us to hold these parties accountable for their actions. As Mr. Obama said Tuesday, and again today, “Education is not a luxury, but rather, an economic imperative…if we are to build an American that will last.”
There was one point that Mr. Obama touched upon that struck me as particularly resonating. His comments today were largely, if not exclusively, focused on an undergraduate experience, but he did mention something that is pertinent to graduate students (aside from the astronomical student loans taken out to support our own undergrad years). Given our current tax system, many tax breaks are given to those who don’t need them, and our country cannot afford that. Mr. Obama suggests that we have a little “common-sense” and reconsider this tax-break system; we should reallocate funds towards research instead of giving tax breaks to those who do not need them. We can, as he points out, consider this an investment in the future. As a graduate student (and, I suppose, a romantic), I perceive the world as largely uncharted. A commitment in us (read: public health graduate students) and our work means committing resources to understanding host-environment-pathogen interactions or refining community-based health initiatives or reformulation of policies to reflect the needs of the marginalized. A commitment in our research allows us to make our individual contributions to the improvement of our communities’ quality of life.
According to the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, the University of Michigan was chosen by the Obama Administration because “it represents many things that are going right.” Stressing not only accessibility but also completion, Secretary Duncan praised Michigan’s diverse student body and the value of a Michigan degree upon graduation. His sentiments were echoed by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D – MI) who was proud to point out that Michigan is playing an important role in our country’s economic turnaround and that UM contributes to this role by “out-educating” students who “out-innovate.” After nearly two years at the School of Public Health, I would have to agree with Secretary Duncan and Senator Stabenow, as my experience here was marked with rigorous training and tremendous personal growth.
Today, Mr. Obama reminded me of how lucky I am to be a product of two world-class public institutions and the responsibility that comes with that experience.