Barack Obama has called on higher education institutions in the US to “retake the lead” in providing the best education the world has to offer.
Speaking at the University of Texas at Austin on 9 August, President Obama outlined the struggles facing the US academy, including the country’s fall from first to 12th place in college graduation rates and the spiralling cost of degrees.
He committed the country to producing a further 8 million graduates by the end of the decade, and said that “America has to have the highest share of graduates compared with every other nation”.
President Obama admitted that it was difficult to sell the importance of higher education at a time when the US was emerging from a debilitating depression.
However, he said his argument was that “education is the economic issue of our time” and maintained that “countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow”.
President Obama also reiterated his pledge to make college more accessible to young people. He cited the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act 2010 as an important step, with its progressive measures including more generous Pell Grants for poorer students.
He said he was “absolutely committed” to making sure that “nobody is denied a college education, nobody is denied a chance to pursue their dreams, nobody is denied a chance to make the most of their lives just because they can’t afford it”.
He added: “We are a better country than that, and we need to act like we’re a better country than that.”
The president cited statistics showing that more than a third of college students and half of all minority students fail to complete a degree after six years and said it was “critical” that access was widened while at the same time ensuring that students stuck with their studies.
He concluded by referring to former presidents who had supported education such as Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, and Abraham Lincoln, who set up the US’ land-grant institutions during the American Civil War.
He said their efforts symbolised the “promise at the heart” of the US: the “essential truth that the way to move forward, in our own lives and as a nation, is to put education first”.