By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010; 3:05 PM
AUSTIN -- Saying that the country's long-term economic recovery depends on a wholesale improvement in education, President Obama on Monday pledged his administration's best efforts toward increasing the number of college graduates.
"Lifting graduation rates. Preparing our graduates to succeed in this economy. Making college affordable. That's how we'll put a higher education within reach for anyone who wants it," Obama said in prepared remarks for a speech here Monday. "That's how we'll reach our goal of once again leading the world in college graduation rates by the end of this decade."
As his Democratic allies in Congress face the voters this fall, one of Obama's chief tasks is to remind voters why they chose him for the White House back in 2008. And that involves reminding them what he's accomplished, particularly when those accomplishments have gone largely unheralded.
The speech marks a return to the University of Texas, where Obama rallied as a candidate with more than 20,000 supporters during the campaign, to tout his administration's higher education record.
The government in the past 20 months has revamped the student loan system, done away with the banks that used to serve as middlemen and redirected about $60 billion to increased Pell Grants for college students and other education programs. Officials have also added money to the community college system, created a new tax credit for college tuition and simplified student aid forms.
Obama, speaking in a UT gymnasium, declared education to be "the economic issue of our times."
"It's an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who've never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have," he said. "It's an economic issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. It's an economic issue when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow."
The president did not announce any new proposals in his speech but sought to summarize his administration's higher education efforts.
The speech is "primarily a recap of what we've done," said communications director Dan Pfeiffer, though he added that the president was attempting to place those accomplishments within the "context of dealing with the economy."
That's important as the Democrats seek a reaffirmation of their policies at a time when many people are struggling with unemployment in a sluggish recovery.
White House officials said the president's speech was designed to highlight the administration's overriding goal when it comes to higher education: making the United States No. 1 in the proportion of students who graduate from college.
"Today we have flat-lined, while other countries have passed us by," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. He called the president's goal of leading the world in proportion of graduates by 2020 "the North Star for all of our educational initiatives."
Duncan and other officials said the United States has a long way to go, with only 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 having earned college degrees. To lead the world, Obama wants that proportion to be 60 percent.
That would mean adding 11 million more college graduates to the ranks of that age cohort. Even assuming some additional graduates just from population growth, officials predicted the country will have to find a way to add more than 8 million new college graduates.
"This isn't just a target for target's sake," said Cecilia Rouse, a member of the president's council of economic advisers. "It's really important that we have the workers that will compete in the 21st century."