President Obama at the start of his speech mentioned that "Denard is in the audience," referring to UM football quarterback Denard Robinson, who stood up to acknowledge the President and set the crowd cheering. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor— President Barack Obama took the stage at the University of Michigan Friday before thousands of college students, delivering a rousing 40-minute speech that touched on an issue near and dear to their hearts — the need for making higher education more accessible and affordable.
His message closely followed themes from his State of the Union speech he delivered Wednesday. But this time, it was a message tailored in many ways to his Michigan audience.
"The reason I'm here today, in addition to meeting (U-M quarterback) Denard Robinson, is to talk with all of you about what most of you do here every day," he said. "That is to think about how you can gain the skills and training you need to succeed in this 21st century economy. This is going to be one of the most important issues that not just you face but everyone in the entire country faces."
School officials estimated the crowd at Al Glick Field House to be roughly 4,000. Many of those in attendance had waited hours in line overnight Wednesday to get their tickets the following morning. And many others began lining up in the rain and snow for Friday's general admission appearance the night before.
Drawing on his own experience and that of first lady Michelle Obama, the president told that crowd: "Your president and your first lady were in your shoes, not that long ago. We didn't come from wealthy families. The only way we were able to achieve what we achieved is because we got a great education. We could not have done that unless we lived in a country that made a commitment to opening up that opportunity to all people."
Among the non-students on-hand were Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, U.S. Reps. John Conyers and Hansen Clarke, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
"At a time when middle-class families are struggling to make ends meet and students are graduating with mountains of student loan debt, we must do everything we can to make sure college is affordable for Michigan families," Stabenow said in a statement released after the speech.
Despite the political star power, much of the president's message was aimed directly at his younger audience.
In his State of the Union address Wednesday, Obama called for the extension of the tuition tax credit to make education more affordable. Friday, he reiterated his called for states to find new and creative ways to stop rising tuition costs.
"We're telling the states if you can bring down the cost of college and find ways for more students to graduate ... we will give you additional federal support," he said
Tuition costs are an item of concern for many who attend the University of Michigan. For in-state undergraduates, full-year tuition is $12,440 for freshman and sophomores, and $14,046 for juniors and seniors. Certain programs, such as engineering, business and kinesiology, cost more. U-M has one of the highest tuition bills relative to the state's median household income.
Rory Crook, 30, a U-M graduate student at university's School of Public Health, was impressed with Obama's message about the revival of the auto industry.
"I was really happy when he saved the auto industry. I know there was a lot of rebuttal and agitation in the past about it being bailed out, but we needed it, and it was a good thing," Crook said following the speech.
From jobs and education, the president turned his attention to fuel efficiency and the environment.
"No matter how much oil we produce, we've only got 2 percent of the world's oil reserves. That means we have to focus on clean, renewable energy — and that is good for our economy. That creates jobs, but is also good for our environment. It also makes sure that this planet is sustainable. That's part of the future you deserve."
Obama also called for further extension of the payroll tax cut that has been a sticking point in Congress before addressing his views on income tax rates in America.
"We've got to choose," he said. "When it comes to paying our fair share, I believe we should follow the Warren Buffet rule. If you make more than $1 million a year, then you should pay a tax rate of at least 30 percent. On other hand, if you go into a less lucrative profession … if you make less than $250,000 … then your taxes shouldn't go up."
While Obama was the morning's featured attraction, a few locals took the stage first. Following the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance, DeAndree Watson, president of the university's school assembly, offered up a thematic taste ahead of the president's speech.
"If we didn't live in a world that invested in higher education, I wouldn't be here," he said. "As a student from Detroit's east side and a product of the Detroit school system, I am here today to seek a world class education - something that would not be possible without (investment in education)."
Christina Beckman, a sophomore from Grand Rapids, introduced the president.
Abel Nieto, 42, who works at a management company in Ann Arbor, was also among the thousands who scored a ticket to listen to Obama speak.
"It was awesome that he included all of the community colleges in the community, not just Michigan, but that he acknowledged all of the hard work community college students do so they can eventually transfer," Nieto said.
Outside the field house before the speech, dozens of people who identify as belonging to the Republican and tea parties lined up carrying signs protesting the policies of Obama.
Protesters, such as Sam Shrago, 18, a U-M engineering student, said Obama's administration is killing jobs.
"We're gathered here because we feel he's here to garner electoral support instead of addressing the issues," Shrago said.
Obama's appearance came just two days after his wide-ranging State of the Union address. During Wednesday night's address, Obama targeted rising tuition costs as one of the biggest obstacles to education and training beyond the high school level for future workers.
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