President Obama reached out to crucial young voters in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday with a promise to keep college affordable, in the first of three campus appearances in three battleground states this week.

Speaking to an exuberant crowd of about 8,000 at the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus, Obama made his case that congressional leaders must take action before July to prevent interest rates from doubling on federal student loans. Later Tuesday, he will give a similar speech at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and on Wednesday he will speak at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

“College education is one of the best investments America can make for our future,” Obama said. “This is important for all of us. We can’t price most Americans out of a college educaiton. We can’t make higher education a luxury. It’s an economic imperative. Every American should be able to afford it. So that’s why I’m here.”

Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, now stand shoulder to shoulder in wanting to keep student loan rates low. Romney weighed in on the issue Monday, revealing just how important the youth vote is expected to be in the general election, which both campaigns view as fully underway now that Romney’s nomination is all but assured.

The hero’s welcome Obama received while promoting the idea in Chapel Hill Tuesday — the crowd shouted “Amen” during his speech and chanted “four more years” as he greeted supporters afterward — showed how powerful his advantage remains among young voters.

Obama’s challenge, then, is not so much winning these voters; he won among 18-29-year-olds in 2008 by a 34-point margin, and most polls predict he will win the group again easily this year. Rather, it is to draw out as many as possible on election day — and into the campaign’s army of grassroots volunteers in a year when they are less enthusiastic than they were in 2008.

This is especially true in competitive states such as North Carolina, which the president won with a margin of roughly 14,000 votes — approximately the number of new voters who registered that year on the campus of UNC.

On Monday, senior White House officials, who asked for anonymity so they could speak candidly, confirmed as much, noting that a key goal of the president's re-election effort is to register as many new young voters — those between the ages of 18 and 21 who were too young to vote in 2008 — as they can.

Romney’s comments on Monday partly neutralized the contrast between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of student loans — except when it comes to paying for the initiative, which is expected to cost $6 billion. The president took advantage of that opening in his remarks Tuesday, drawing attention to Republican lawmakers’ — and Romney’s — support of deep cuts to the federal budget that Obama argues could jeopardize student-loan rates and other programs to help young Americans afford college.

Obama also called on Congress to extend a tuition tax-credit he pushed when he first took office, to safeguard financial aid for low-income students such as the Pell Grant program, and to double the number of work-study jobs available over the next five years.

Obama’s decision to push the student-loan issue also fits in with a larger contrast he and his campaign are trying to draw with Romney and Republicans: that he is more focused on the concerns of the middle class while his opponent wants to gut popular federal programs in order to extend - and deepen - tax cuts for the rich.

“Do we want to keep tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, or do we want to make sure they’re paying their fair share?” Obama asked his audience. “Do we want to keep subsidizing big oil or do we want to make sure we’re investing in clean energy? Do we want to jack up interest rates on millions of students, or do we want ot keep investing in things that will help us and help them in the long run?”

Obama took a veiled shot at the Republicans, noting that others will give “lip service” to the idea of helping students. And a week after noting that he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the president drew yet another contrast with Romney’s privileged background by noting that he and the first lady, Michelle, did not finish paying off their student loans until eight years ago.

According to a survey released last week by Georgetown University and the Public Religion Research Institute, young voters rank jobs, unemployment, the federal deficit and education as their top concerns — meaning the question of how to manage approximately $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt is all the more relevant.

According to the White House, the average student loan debt is $25,000 and on the rise, and Americans now owe more tuition debt than credit card debt. Obama’s proposal, meanwhile, would affect 7.4 million students, saving them an average of about $4,000 over the lifetime of four years’ worth of federally subsidized Stafford loans.

More than 160,000 of those students are from North Carolina; 167,000 are from Colorado and 255,000 are from Iowa, according to the White House.

The rates on those loans were reduced to 3.4 percent in 2007, but they are scheduled to double for new loans on July 1. Democratic lawmakers in both chambers have proposed bills that would extend current rates another year, but some Republicans have resisted the $6 billion pricetag.