“Not only do we want you to have a good education, we want to make sure that you’re getting a job after you graduate,” Obama said at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington.
The president’s speech came hours after the Labor Department released its jobs report, which showed that the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent in April but the pace of job growth has slowed.
But most of the president’s 15-minute speech focused on his ongoing push for Congress to extend a low-interest rate on federal subsidized student loans for another year. Right now that rate is at 3.4 percent, and it is set to double on July 1, returning to its previous rate of 6.8 percent.
Obama reiterated what he told students at public universities in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa last week: If the interest rate goes up, millions of students will have to pay about $1,000 more on their federal subsidized loans.
“I want to give you guys some relief from that debt,” he said. “I don’t want you to start off life saddled with debt. And I don’t want your parents to be taking on so much debt as well.”
Washington-Lee has been rated one of the top high schools in the country, and nearly 93 percent of the last graduating class enrolled in a two- or four-year college. Hundreds of juniors and seniors, along with their parents, gathered in the gym to listen to the president, while younger students watched on televisions in their classrooms.
Obama also urged the cell-phone-touting students to call, e-mail, Facebook message, tweet or somehow contact their lawmakers and push for the extensions. He again urged them to use the Twitter hashtag, #DontDoubleMyRate.
Some Republicans have questioned how the government would fund that rate extension. Pete Snyder of the Republican Party of Virginia attended the Washington-Lee event and said afterward that the president’s focus should be more squarely on job creation.
“He’s talked about amassing more debt,” Snyder said, “not how to pay for that debt.”
Before the event Obama met with three Washington-Lee seniors and their parents. All three are headed to state universities in the fall and plan to pay for part of their education with federal Stafford loans.
The students said the meeting lasted for about 15 minutes, and that the president asked them about how they would pay for college and the challenges he himself faced in paying for school.
“He’s just like us,” said Rina Castaneda, 18, who will be the first in her family to attend college when she enrolls at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall. “He talked about him and his wife and the the struggles they went through.”
Castaneda said she knows older students who have struggled finding jobs, especially after graduation, but she is confident that she will be able to find a job or start her own business.
“It's difficult, it’s not impossible,” she said of the post-graduation job market.
Washington-Lee Principal Gregg Robertson said that seven years ago the school focused on better-preparing students for college by increasing its number of college-level courses and helping students through the application process. In the last few years, there has been a greater emphasis on helping students find ways to pay for college.
“We’re seeing first-hand that there’s a problem when it comes to paying for college,” Robertson said. "We’re getting them ready for college. Now, how are they going to pay for it?”