By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — During his last visit to Western New York in 2010, President Barack Obama stopped by a Buffalo manufacturing plant to talk about the nation’s economy before visiting Duff’s, a popular local restaurant known for its chicken wings.
On his return trip to the region this morning, Obama is headed for the University at Buffalo where he’s expected to deliver a speech on lowering the cost of higher education, a key aspect of his so-called “Better Bargain” for America’s middle class.
How does the president plan on making college more affordable?
Dozens of Niagara County residents will get a chance to hear more details as they attend today’s presidential address inside UB’s Alumni Arena. Among them will be a group of 15 students and employees from Lewiston’s Niagara University, an institution of higher learning that would be impacted by the educational aspect of Obama’s “bargain” should it gain support in Washington, D.C.
“It should be fun,” said Michael Freedman, Niagara University’s associate director of public relations who will be among the contingent heading to Buffalo from Lewiston. “We’re looking forward to it. The topic is timely. It’s something we’ve been hearing so much about, so it should be interesting to hear what the president has to say.”
In discussing his plans for his bus tour in New York this week, Obama described making higher education more affordable as his “personal mission.” He noted that over the past three decades the average tuition at a public four-year college has more than tripled while state governments are reducing spending on education. Obama said it is time for America to “fundamentally rethink” its higher education system through “real reforms” that will make college more affordable, tackle rising costs and improve value for students and families.
As part of his “Better Bargain,” Obama is calling for the doubling of investments in Pell grants, expanding education tax credits, keeping student loan interest rates down and reforming student aid to promote affordability and value, among other initiatives.
“Over the past four and a half years, we’ve worked to put college in reach for more students and their families through tax credits, improving access to financial aid and new options that make it easier to repay those loans,” Obama said. “But if we’re going to keep the doors of higher education open to everyone who works for it, we need to do more - much more.”
Kevin Hearn, Niagara University’s vice president for student affairs and the interim dean for enrollment management, will also be making the trip to Buffalo today and said he’s really interested in hearing what Obama has to say about affordability of higher education, a topic he struggles with in his day-to-day responsibilities.
One area he said universities can really make progress in is graduating students on time. Typically reported based on six-year enrollment figures, graduation rates at Niagara are focused on four-year completions.
It’s subtle, he said, but a difference of two years tuition for students, especially those taking advantage of loans, could make a major difference in affording school long after finishing.
Another issue Hearn sees as a root cause of increasing education costs goes on behind the scenes of college expenses. While many colleges aren’t increasing their stated tuition at an extreme rate, he said, what’s happening around the country is the extra fees and service charges are really rocketing up. Textbooks also factor in, he said.
These are all issues NU is actively striving to combat, he said.
“We’ve been talking with our faculty about ways to keep the costs of books down,” he said. “We’re looking at every aspect of our operation to make sure these numbers are real. Our reason for existence is to build an informed and educated populace. That’s why we’re here.”
Despite the aggressive tactics, the school isn’t immune to the problems. It enrolls approximately 3,300 undergraduate students, with about 1,400 of them residing in its dorms. And the cost of educating those students is going up every year, as salaries and benefits, along with other education issues, increase.
But NU champions its Vincentian core, which Hearn said drives it to serve the “fringe” and “modest.” It’s a driving force behind the school issuing $33 million in scholarships and other financial aid to its students in 2012 alone, he said.
It comes out to roughly one third of the tuition money the school collects.
“Our school is mission-driven,” he said. “We’ve been tasked to assist those who may, in terms of sticker price, not be able to afford (school).”
THE PRESIDENT'S ITINERARY U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls and Buffalo, released the following anticipated schedule of events for today's Western New York visit by President Barack Obama: n 10:30 a.m. - President Obama arrives in Buffalo on Air Force One. n 10:30 a.m. - Higgins, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other elected officials will greet the president on the tarmac as he arrives. n 10:40 a.m. - The president's motorcade will travel from the airport to the University at Buffalo. n 11:15 a.m. - President Obama will speak during an event at University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena. President Obama's trip is expected to cause some traffic tie-ups. The state Thruway Authority announced that drivers should be prepared for temporary road closures and slow or stopped traffic on the Thruway Thursday and Friday. The agency says drivers may not be allowed to enter the highway at some interchanges at certain times or may be unable to re-enter the highway from service plazas and rest areas.
Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.