Obama Takes Multistate Trip To Woo College Voters

President Obama kicked off a three university tour on Tuesday at UNC-Chapel Hill. Student debt now surpasses credit card debt in the U.S., and Obama is pressing Congress to pass an act that would keep interest rates on those loans from doubling this summer. Robert Siegel talks to Scott Horsley.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Lowering the cost of student loans is at the top of President Obama's agenda today, and he's talking about it in front of some friendly crowds.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is great to be back on the Lady Tarheels' home court.

SIEGEL: The University of North Carolina was one of the president's stops on a trip aimed at wooing young voters. They were a big part of the president's winning coalition four years ago, and he'll need their help again in November. Later tonight, much later, Mr. Obama appears on Jimmy Fallon's TV talk show, which airs at an hour when many older voters are already asleep. NPR's Scott Horsley is travelling with the president, and he joins us now.

Scott, Mr. Obama is speaking in basketball arenas today at UNC-Chapel Hill, also in Boulder at the University of Colorado. Tell us more about why.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, he's looking to make some noise, Robert. You heard the cheer he got when he talked about the Lady Tarheels here at UNC. He opened with an applause line reminding students that he picked UNC to win it all in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. He's very definitely trying to gin up some excitement on this and other college campuses, and more generally with young voters around the country.

SIEGEL: He appears to be very popular with young voters, but the conventional wisdom is - not as popular as he was four years ago.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. And there's a new poll out today from Harvard University's Institute of Politics. They surveyed voters between 18 and 29. In that group, the president is leading his likely GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, by 17 points, which seems like a lot, but you have to remember that four years ago, he bested John McCain with that group of young voters by 34 points. The other thing that distinguished 2008 for President Obama was that young voters turned out in very high numbers, and that's also going to be a tough act to follow, even for the president himself.

SIEGEL: Yes, and I gather the Harvard poll found that for young people - like voters generally - the big concern is the economy and jobs.

HORSLEY: Yes, no surprise there. I mean, young people coming out of college today, or even those coming out of high school looking for work have a very tough time, although new college graduates are having a little bit easier time this year than in the last couple years. And certainly having a college degree is still a good thing, if you're looking for work. But the other point that the president touched on today is that a lot of these college graduates are coming out saddled with big debts. For a typical student borrowing money for school, the debt load is $25,000.

OBAMA: And the fact is that since most of you were born, tuition and fees at America's colleges have more than doubled. And that forces students like you to take out a lot more loans. There are fewer grants. You rack up more debt. Can I get an amen?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Amen.

HORSLEY: That's why, Mr. Obama says, it's important to keep the interest rate on government subsidized loans where it is. That rate is now 3.4 percent, but it's set to double to 6.8 percent July 1st, unless Congress acts to prevent that. Right now, the battle in Congress seems less over whether to do that than to how to offset the cost for the federal government, which is estimated at about $6 billion a year.

The administration says there are ways to pay for it, but that's where the controversy stands.

SIEGEL: Now, Mitt Romney has also come out in support of lower interest rates for student loans, hasn't he?

HORSLEY: Just yesterday, Mitt Romney said he thinks it's a good idea to keep those interest rates low, given the current economic climate. And so, there's not necessarily a distinction there between the presidential candidates. Mr. Obama did subtlety draw a distinction, though, in their personal biographies. Without naming Romney today, the president stressed that both he and the first lady only finished paying off their own student loans about eight years ago.

When they got married, he said, they got poorer together. So this, he stressed, is an issue he understands firsthand. It's not something, he said, that he's just read about.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley, who's travelling with President Obama.

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