AMHERST — President Barack Obama on Thursday became the first sitting president since Millard Fillmore in 1853 to speak at the University at Buffalo, as he outlined a sweeping overhaul of the nation's higher education system aimed at delivering "a better bargain" for the middle class.
"We can't price the middle class and everybody trying to get into the middle class out of a higher education," he said, adding that keeping soaring tuition costs in check is an "economic imperative" that, if not addressed, could "stifle economic mobility for generations."
Citing his administration's own estimates, Obama said average tuition to the nation's public four-year colleges and universities has increased by 250 percent in the last three decades, while income has risen just 16 percent over the same period. He said the projected cost of a higher education has become "a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt."
An average college student now graduates from a four-year school saddled with $26,000 in debt.
"The system's current trajectory is not sustainable," he said before proposing a three-part reform initiative.
His first proposal is the creation of a new government rating system for colleges and universities to help students and parents more accurately judge a school's affordability and cost-effectiveness. A college's rating would in turn dictate the disbursement of federal aid to students.
The plan, based on criteria yet to be determined, ideally would be implemented prior to the 2015 school year, he said, and would take into account graduation rates, average tuition, student loan debt and a student's earning potential after graduation as factors in the school's overall performance rating.
"There are schools out there that have higher default rates than graduation rates," Obama said. "It's time to stop rewarding schools that are not producing results."
Obama detailed the plan for a crowd of roughly 7,000 inside UB's Alumni Arena on move-in day, as about 5,000 students descended on campus, mini-fridges and futons in tow.
UB President Satish Tripathi welcomed U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spoke briefly prior to Obama's arrival, as live footage of Air Force One landing at Buffalo International Airport played on the arena's big screens to roaring applause.
Just before Obama took the podium, after his signature jog to the lectern, UB sophomore and Grand Island native Silvana D'Ettorre had the honor of introducing the president.
D'Ettore, after the speech, said she was instructed to keep her role in the ceremony a secret from all but her immediate family in the run-up to Obama's visit, which Tripathi said was only confirmed late last week.
"When I was up on stage I was thinking this really isn't that bad," she said. "I was relaxed."
Obama embraced D'Ettore, an aspiring dentist, and the two briefly exchanged words before the president addressed the crowd.
"He said I should be a dentist based on my smile," she said.
In addition to the rating system, Obama also spelled out proposed changes designed to help spur competition among colleges through innovation, including pathways to earning degrees more quickly, promoting courses for college credit among high school students and online credits.
In his third proposal, Obama hinted at an improved framework to help graduates who've taken on debt manage it, suggesting a graduate's monthly loan payment should be capped at 10 percent of their post-graduation income.
"Government shouldn't view student loans as a way to make money, it should be to help students," he said. "Our national mission ought to be how to profit off of having the best educated workforce in the world."
Following the president's remarks, Tripathi said he believes UB would rank well under the new criteria, and pointed to tuition and student debt reportedly below national averages for similar public research universities.
UB's tuition and fees for the fall 2012 semester were $7,989, not including room and board or textbooks, while the average for national public research universities is $9,029, according to school officials. The average for AAU public universities is $11,096, according to the Office of University Communications.
When asked how Obama's planned initiatives would hold up under the school's UB2020 initiative, which could allow for higher tuition, Tripathi was optimistic.
When it was unveiled in 2006, the UB2020 strategic plan was aimed at pushing the university into the top tier of the nation’s public research institutions, including hiring new faculty, expanding course offerings and, most notably, moving its School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences to the expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in downtown Buffalo.
"If you look at our graduation rates we're doing well, as well, so we really are doing what the president is trying to do," Tripathi said. "We are working in that direction."
The trip was Obama's second to the region during his presidency. In May 2010, Obama visited a manufacturing facility in Buffalo to tout his economic recovery programs.