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Obama Reiterates Plans to Increase College Access in Address

After President Obama thanked the dignitaries gathered in the Capitol to hear his State of the Union address, his first words were about the work of educators and improving the performance of U.S. students.

"Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it and did her part to lift America's graduation rates to its highest levels in three decades," he said.

The president was apparently referring to news of a 78.2 percent four-year graduation rate reported last February from the Building a Grad Nation campaign.

The president's speech was full of references to education policy, from the need for pre-K funding and promoting innovation in high school to emphasizing the affordability in college. (For complete coverage of all things education in the SOTU, see Politics K-12.)

Although Obama applauded progress being made in education, he underscored the need for more to be done to give all students the opportunity to get a college education.

"We're shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education," he said.

Last summer, Obama proposed a college-rating system to provide more transparency about cost and promote affordability, but just what measures the president wants to pursue and how that system would work have yet to be determined.

Earlier this month, he called college leaders to the White House to discuss how to help more disadvantaged students gain access to higher education and increase their chances of completing a degree. Rather than waiting on Congress for action, he asked for commitments from individual institutions and nonprofits to come up with innovative practices to move the needle on success for at-risk students.

Last night, Obama also talked about the need for high schools to be innovative, to offer "challenging curriculums," and to work with community colleges to prepare students for the jobs of the future. He also tasked Vice President Joe Biden with convening a task force to review America's job training programs, with a close look at building partnerships between schools and employers.

Reaction from the Association of Career and Technical Education to the State of the Union was positive.

"Robust CTE programs at the K-12 and community-college levels have a strong track record of positive results in filling the skills gap and connecting students with rewarding career opportunities, like those referenced in the president's speech," said ACTE Executive Director LeAnn Wilson in a statement. "We are hopeful that he, his administration, and Congress will recognize and build upon support for existing federal policy in this 'year of action' to equitably benefit CTE students and educators nationwide, particularly through increases in funding available through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and a thoughtful reauthorization of that law."

The Center for American Progress applauded the president's call for ensuring that students are college- and career-ready through high academic standards and effective, supported teachers, as well as efforts to contain the costs of college. CAP also supports the administration's effort to expand high school programs that include real-world training and access to apprenticeship programs, as well as streamlined job-training options.

"Better educated students and better trained workers will help us grow the economy and help make the economy work for everyone," said Carmel Martin, the executive vice president for policy at the Washington-based think tank and a former official with the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama administration.

But investing more government money in higher education is not the answer to improving college completion according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. In its analysis of the Tuesday night address, the organization suggested that pumping up federal subsidies enables universities to raise tuition—noting that since 1982 college costs have increased 439 percent, more than four times the rate of inflation.

"Increasing federal subsidies for higher education—whether in the form of Pell grants or student loans—shifts the responsibility of paying for college from the student, who directly benefits from college, to the taxpayer," the Heritage analysis says.

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