Obama Calls For College Affordability On Bus Tour

President Obama was in Buffalo, N.Y., today, talking up the college affordability program at the SUNY campus there and urging Congress to do more to support higher education. The president also has a political agenda as he drives from town to town. NPR's Scott Horsley is with the president and joins us now.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

President Obama is touring western New York State by bus today. He's promoting a plan to make college education more affordable. Earlier this month, lawmakers agreed to preserve low interest rates on student loans, but the president says borrowing money, even at low rates, will only saddle students and their families with more debt.

Speaking to a crowd at the University of Buffalo, he said the government needs to do more to ensure access to higher education.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Higher education is still the best ticket to upward mobility in America and if we don't do something about keeping it within reach, it will create problems for economic mobility for generations to come. And - and that's not acceptable.

(APPLAUSE)

BLOCK: NPR's Scott Horsley is travelling with the president and he joins us now. And Scott, why did the president decide to start his college affordability bus trip at the University of Buffalo?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Melissa, Buffalo is part of the State University of New York and that's a system the administration thinks has done a pretty good job of keeping college costs in check. According to a scorecard that the Department of Education produces, tuition and fees at Buffalo are on the low end of comparable universities and their graduation rate is relatively high.

What's more, most of the students who do graduate make enough money to pay back any money they might have borrowed, so the default rate for Buffalo graduates is well below the national average. And the president wants to spotlight that kind of success. In fact, a big part of his plan to promote affordability is to make that kind of cost payoff information available to students and their families when they're choosing a college because he says a lot of schools aren't doing so well.

So by 2015, the administration plans to issue a report card on all schools, showing how they stack up on costs, on graduation, and even the income of their graduates.

BLOCK: And let's talk a bit about that report card, Scott, because the idea would be that the federal government would use that to help allocate financial aid. How would that work?

HORSLEY: Well, right. And that could be a significant lever because the federal government spends about $150 billion a year on student aid. Right now that's distributed without regard to which schools charge a lot, which ones are a bargain. No weight's given to which schools graduate a lot of students and which schools have a lot of dropouts.

So the president wants to reward schools that do well on his affordability scale by making more aid available to students that go to those schools and docking schools that do poorly. Now, that won't necessarily be easy. The report card is something the administration can do on its own, but if they want to tie money to those grades, that's going to take an act of Congress.

BLOCK: And what's the likelihood there, Scott? Because the president has had a bit of trouble moving bills through Congress, especially getting them by Republicans in the House.

HORSLEY: He sure has. Although, the White House says they think there could be an opening here. One of the few bipartisan bills that did make it through Congress this summer was that measure you spoke of to preserve low interest rates on student loans. So there is at least some bipartisan interest in keeping college affordable. In addition, the president mentioned some states are taking similar steps to link their financial support of higher education to colleges' performance.

And all the states that the president singled out today - Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee - those are all led by Republican governors.

BLOCK: And the president's bus tour, Scott, continues through tomorrow. He's not campaigning anymore, obviously. He's in his second term, but it does sound and look a lot like a campaign out there.

HORSLEY: It sure does. The Bruce Springsteen music is back. This afternoon the president stopped at a cafe in Rochester, where he shook hands and posed for pictures with the customers. Tomorrow he's holding a town hall in Binghamton and he's going to visit a community college in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he's expected to be accompanied by Vice President Biden.

Of course, Scranton is the vice president's home town. So you know, they're really pushing all the buttons to get coverage on local TV as well as in the national media. And, you know, this late summer period is a time Congress is out of session, lawmakers are back in their home districts, so the president has the stage to himself for a bit. And this is a chance to kind of raise his visibility before the big battles with Republicans this fall over the federal budget and the debt ceiling.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Scott Horsley traveling with the president. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Melissa.

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