WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will visit college campuses in the election battleground states of North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa next week, where he’ll call for Congress to stop interest rates on student loans from skyrocketing this summer.
The White House says that more than 7.4 million students will see interest rates double as of July 1 unless Congress acts. Obama will visit with college students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Iowa in a two-day swing that also will help him court the youthful voters whose support was crucial to his victory in 2008. As part of the student-loan campaign, the White House is employing social media to press the president’s case, using Twitter, Facebook and Google+ with the hashtag of #DontDoubleMyRate.
Obama also will appear on late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon’s show for the first time, taping his appearance from the UNC-CH campus.
The trip comes as the White House defends itself against assertions that the president favors travel to states that he hopes to win in November, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined the White House’s daily news briefing to argue that the case Obama is making is driven by policy priorities, not political considerations.
“We need a lot more young people to go to college and to graduate. That’s all this is about,” Duncan said. “When families start to think that they can’t afford college, that is not good for those families, those communities or for our country.”
Duncan said the 3.4 percent interest rate on the subsidized Stafford Loans that were made to low- and middle-income undergraduates was scheduled to jump to 6.8 percent unless Congress acted. The administration estimates that would add more than $1,000 over the life of the average loan and affect more than 7 million families.
“At a time when going to college has never been more important, it also, unfortunately, has never been more expensive,” Duncan said, adding that higher education could help with the nation’s jobless rate. “We don’t just have a jobs issue now. We have a skills crisis. … We have to close that skills gap. The only way we do that is to have a lot more young people graduate from high school and go on to college.”
The trip comes as at least one poll suggests that Obama’s popularity with young voters is on the wane. Republicans charged that the trip is little more than thinly disguised campaigning. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee, noted that the proposal comes “in the thick of the 2012 election cycle.”
He accused the administration of looking to “kick the can down the road,” noting that neither the White House nor congressional Democrats have “offered any meaningful solutions to pay for the proposal.”
Kline said the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office had estimated that extending the 3.4 percent interest rate for another year would cost the federal government about $6 billion.
Duncan said the president’s budget plan included several proposals to pay for the measure and that the administration wanted to work with Congress to find a fix.
“We need to pay for it. We’re committed to paying for it,” he said.
Duncan said the three schools were “among the nation’s educational jewels.” They’re also in states that the president’s re-election campaign is trying to keep in its column. Obama, who in 2008 became the first Democrat to carry North Carolina since 1976, is trying hard for a repeat. He’s chosen Charlotte to host the party’s convention this summer and has been a frequent visitor to the state.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended the visit to the three states, noting that the president delivered remarks in red-state Oklahoma last month and joking that “while hope springs eternal, I am not prepared at this moment to call that a battleground state.”
He wouldn’t say whether Obama also plans campaign events around the official stops.
“The unbelievably important reality is that on July 1st, rates for students’ loans are going to double if we don’t take action,” Carney said. “It is simply not something we accept, that the president should not be able to travel all around the country, should not be able to travel to talk about his agenda with the American people that he represents.”