Binghamton hosts President Obama at town hall meeting



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JONATHAN COHEN
President Barack Obama answers questions at a town hall meeting at Binghamton University on Aug. 23.

President Barack Obama unveiled his “Making College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class” plan to the ticket-holders selected by lottery to attend a town-hall style meeting in Binghamton University’s Mandela Room on Aug. 23.

Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger welcomed President Obama, saying the University, the Southern Tier Region of New York and the State University of New York are proud and honored to be selected “as a forum to discuss bold ideas for the future of higher education, an essential pillar of excellence for our country’s future. We are more than your host today; we are also your advocate and partner on this journey.”

The audience then rose to welcome Obama and learn about his ambitious agenda to reduce the burden of paying for college before he answered questions from the intimate, student-heavy audience.

Joking that the number one reason he came to Binghamton was to “get spiedies” while in town, Obama said his real reason was his excitement “because of the great work that SUNY campuses like Binghamton are doing to keep costs down for people like you.

“But how do we secure a better bargain for everyone in the middle class and those trying to make it into the middle class?

“The only reason I’m here today is because I got a great education,” Obama said. “It’s the essence of the American dream for those who are willing to work hard, to achieve their dreams. And it’s essential to make sure people can afford to go to college.”

Obama then quickly outlined his three-part plan to tie financial aid to college and student performance, challenge colleges and states to reduce cost and improve quality, and expand and better advertise a current plan that allows student borrowers to cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their income.

“We need to stop taking the same business as usual approach,” he said. “There will be some resistance and there will be some conversation, but we need to have that conversation because the current path we’re on is unsustainable, and higher education is a necessity in this economy.”

Then, switching back and forth between female and male questioners “to be fair,” Obama responded to questions, among others, about: support of students in the healthcare field to create a sustainable workforce as the Affordable Care Act is rolled out; his opinion of for-profit institutions that often have poor outcomes though they enroll students at a high cost; how to make college more affordable for international students; where the nation is now in terms of Civil Rights and access to higher education, given that tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington; and funding for the green economy of the future and support of the Energy Corps.

A young institution at only 67 years old, the highly selective Binghamton University enrolls more than 16,000 students in programs leading to bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs. Its students graduate with an average debt load $5,500 less than the national average of $26,600 (2011 data).

Halfway to meeting its commitment to increase its student enrollment by 2,000 to 17,000 by 2017, Binghamton University has designated an additional $12 million over 5 years to ensuring student access, with support from the rational tuition plan approved as part of NYSUNY 2020 legislation by the New York State Legislature. In addition, in the past year, Binghamton has committed an additional $700,000 to maintain affordability for Tuition Assistance Program (TAP)-eligible undergraduates and to expand Educational Opportunity (EOP) support. –Katie Ellis