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Education ‘economic issue of our time,’ Obama says

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AUSTIN, Texas — President Barack Obama said in a speech at the University of Texas Monday that education "is the economic issue of our time."

Addressing a friendly and appreciative audience in Gregory Gym, the president sought to underscore the link between long-term economic prosperity and a better-educated population.

"It's an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who've never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college," he said. "Education is an economic issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. Education is an economic issue when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow."

Obama said his administration is pursuing a three-pronged higher education strategy: making college more affordable, ensuring that college students — especially those at community colleges, the fastest-growing sector — are prepared for a career and boosting graduation rates.

"Over a third of America's college students, and over half our minority students, don't earn a degree, even after six years," the president said. "So, we don't just need to open the doors of college to more Americans; we need to make sure they stick with it through graduation."

Obama spoke to an audience of 3,500 students, faculty members, staff members and invited guests. Approximately 70 percent of the tickets to the event were distributed by the university to students and employees. The rest were parceled out by the White House to elected officials and state and local leaders.

Obama leavened his remarks about the nation's education challenges with some down-home touches, recalling his visits to Austin during the campaign, back when "my hair was not gray."

"I rubbed the locker room's longhorns for good luck," he said, describing a tour of Royal-Memorial Stadium with football coach Mack Brown. "And I'm just saying it might have had something to do with how the election came out."

The centerpiece goal of Obama's higher education policy is to produce 8 million more college graduates among 25- to 34-year-olds by 2020 than would be produced as a result of current rates plus population growth.

"In a single generation, we've fallen from first to 12th in college graduation rates for young adults. That's unacceptable, but not irreversible," the president said.

Obama cited as one of his biggest successes in higher education policy the elimination of commercial banks and other financial institutions as middlemen in the federal student loan program. That will save about $60 billion in the next decade, with much of it plowed into Pell grants for low-income students.

Obama mentioned U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, as the architect of a tax credit for middle-class families of $2,500 a year for two years of college. The president wants to make that permanent so it would be worth $10,000 over four years of college.