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For college students and their parents, this is the season for heading back to school, and President Obama will be right there with them. Tomorrow, he begins a two-day bus tour of New York and Pennsylvania, including stops at three colleges and a high school. And at every stop, he'll be talking about ways to make college more affordable. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Tomorrow is move-in day for incoming freshmen at the University at Buffalo. If they take a break from hauling suitcases and mini refrigerators, students might look up to see a big, black bus. It will be carrying the president of the United States.
SATISH TRIPATHI: This is a proud and historic occasion for our university and our community.
HORSLEY: That's university President Satish Tripathi, who'll be hosting President Obama for the first stop on his college affordability bus tour. The University at Buffalo earns high marks on the administration's college scorecard for its relatively low-cost tuition and its high graduation rate.
TRIPATHI: Our goal really has been to provide quality education at affordable cost. So we really are doing things right. And we're really proud that the president has chosen to come and talk about higher education, affordability and access at UB.
HORSLEY: Throughout his time in office, President Obama has championed federal support for higher education, boosting Pell Grants and brokering a deal with Congress this summer to preserve low interest rates on student loans. According to the Department of Education, 57 percent of all undergraduates received some kind of federal aid in 2012. That's up from 47 percent four years earlier. But White House spokesman Josh Earnest says even as federal assistance has increased in recent years, the cost of attending college has risen faster.
JOSH EARNEST: Government assistance can't keep up with skyrocketing costs. So what the president believes that we need to do is we need to fundamentally rethink and reshape the higher education system, and we need to find a way to build on innovation.
HORSLEY: Many state governments have been cutting back on their support for higher education. And that's led many public universities to shrink enrollment and raise their fees.
Rachel Fishman of the New America Foundation says that's exactly the wrong approach at a time when more and more good-paying jobs require a college education.
RACHEL FISHMAN: These are skills that a lot of students have to go back to school for. And so we want to make sure that those pathways are there, that there's an affordable education so that more people can be able to move into the middle class.
HORSLEY: Fishman and her colleagues identified the University at Buffalo as one of a handful of next generation universities that have found ways to keep costs down while still producing a large number of graduates. Buffalo, with 29,000 students, is part of the State University of New York. Last year, it launched its Finish in 4 initiative designed to help students complete their coursework in four years rather than five or six, which had become commonplace.
The effort includes hiring more teachers to guarantee adequate access to the most popular courses. Fishman says SUNY has also been good about offering online courses and accepting transfer students from community colleges without a big loss of credits.
FISHMAN: They're coming up with really innovative ways to make sure students are getting the courses they need, the credits they need to graduate on time, which saves both the state and the student money.
HORSLEY: Obama is expected to highlight such efforts as he visits colleges in Buffalo and Binghamton, New York, and also in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The bus tour has all the trappings of an election campaign. But political analyst Ross Baker of Rutgers University says there are no obvious votes for the president to influence.
ROSS BAKER: I think he's got to show the flag. He's just come off his vacation at Martha's Vineyard. The summer is kind of slack season. His own poll ratings are slightly down. And I think he wants to reinvigorate his base.
HORSLEY: In fact, while the college affordability theme is timely for this back-to-school season, Baker thinks the president really has his eye on upcoming battles with congressional Republicans over the federal budget and the debt ceiling.
BAKER: I think he is just really beginning to kind of rev up the engines for the big debates of the fall.
HORSLEY: And one diesel engine Obama will be revving is attached to a big, black presidential bus. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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