Obama to Say Lag in College Grads Imperils U.S. Economic Competitiveness

President Barack Obama will say in a speech today that a lag in the number of college graduates imperils U.S. economic competitiveness and that his education programs will close the gap.

In remarks at the University of Texas in Austin, Obama will highlight a report last month from the College Board that said the U.S., which once led the world in college degrees for people ages 25-34, now ranks 12th among 36 developed nations.

“We’re flat-lined while other countries have passed us by,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters in a conference call yesterday to preview Obama’s remarks. “The country that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

Obama has set a national goal that the U.S. should have the highest rate of college graduates in the world by 2020. Duncan said that means 60 percent of the population between the ages of 25-34, compared with 40 percent now. To reach the 2020 goal, the U.S. must graduate 10 million students with two- or four-year degrees, 8 million more than population increases would add, Duncan said.

Obama will use the education theme today to reinforce a broader White House message for the congressional elections in November: “Whether we’re going to keep going forward and build on the progress we’ve made, or go back to the policies that got us into this mess,” Dan Pfeiffer, the White House director of communications, told reporters on the conference call.

Choice of Texas

The president chose the University of Texas because Austin was the site of an education and health-care rally in 2008 that “was an important moment in the early days” of Obama’s presidential campaign, Pfeiffer said. He said Obama would refrain from criticizing policies of former President George W. Bush, a Republican who once said he wanted to be the “education president.”

“We’re not trying to litigate the past; we’re trying not to relive it,” he said.

Obama is making his second trip to the state since taking office, combining his public appearance with fundraisers in Austin and Dallas for the benefit of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, respectively.

Appeal to Donors

In remarks to the DNC donors at an Austin hotel, Obama told his party’s supporters that his policies have put the economy “on the right track.” He said the November congressional elections will give voters a choice between the current path or returning to the policies pursued by Republicans when they held power in Washington.

“The last thing that we can afford to do at this critical juncture in our history is to go back to the same policies that got us into this mess in the first place,” Obama said. “The other side isn’t offering anything new.”

Obama lost Texas in the 2008 election to Republican presidential candidate John McCain by 55 percent to 44 percent. The state’s Republican governor, Rick Perry, has been critical of Obama’s policies on education and the economy. Perry greeted Obama when the president arrived in Austin.

The Democratic candidate for governor, former Houston Mayor Bill White, who has also criticized the administration on spending, won’t be campaigning with Obama while the president is in Texas, citing previous commitments.

Texas Politics

Obama “has a history of getting good receptions from audiences all around Austin,” Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government, author and presidential historian at the university, said in an e-mail. “Elsewhere in the state, it might be different.”

White “fears being tarred with that connection in the minds of Texas voters,” Buchanan said.

White House spokesman Bill Burton said “it’s a historical fact of life” that some candidates will avoid campaigning with a president from their party in a tough election year.

In the last nine days, including events today, Obama has held eight Democratic fundraisers in Washington, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Austin and Dallas, raising millions of dollars, with more events planned in the Midwest, West and South next week.

The combination of an official appearance by the president with two political fundraisers allows the Democratic Party to share the expense of security and Air Force One travel with taxpayers, an advantage permitted by Federal Election Commission guidelines that’s been used by presidents of both parties.

Education and Economy

Obama is positioning his education plans as part of a broader economic strategy for the U.S.

Current world leaders in college graduation rates include South Korea, Canada and Russia, with about 55 percent of the population age 25-34 years holding college degrees, said Cecilia Rouse, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, who also briefed reporters on the conference call.

Duncan told reporters the administration is trying to improve college completion rates partly by making attendance more affordable. In the past 18 months, he said, the administration has pumped more than $30 billion of stimulus money toward increasing Pell grants for low-income students and providing tax credits to help parents cover student tuition expenses.

About $4.35 billion has been set aside for schools to close the achievement gap, and the administration has ended student loan subsidies to private banks, diverting the more than $60 billion in savings to increase aid to needy students. Student aid applications have been streamlined and the government has imposed a 10 percent cap on student loan repayments, with loan forgiveness after 20 years of payments.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roger Runningen in Washington at rrunningen@bloomberg.net; Kate Andersen Brower in Austin at kandersen7@bloomberg.net

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