President Barack Obama visits UNC to deliver an address on higher education and student loans

Video by Colleen McEnaney and Zach Evans / The Daily Tar Heel

Barack Obama, President of the United States, talked about student loans today in Carmichael Arena on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Gearing up for his re-election campaign in a state that favored him four years ago, President Barack Obama appeared to be right at home before a crowd of 8,000 at Carmichael Auditorium Tuesday.

In a 30-minute speech, Obama name dropped Kendall Marshall, James Michael McAdoo, the women’s basketball team and stated — repeatedly — how much he loved the state of North Carolina.

But that’s not what he was there to tell the crowd.

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President Obama speaks in Carmichael on Tuesday afternoon.

Obama’s message to students was simple: Higher education is crucial for the country’s future, along with keeping college affordable.

He cited his personal experiences with student loans, describing the “mountain of debt” he had accumulated with First Lady Michelle Obama after they graduated from law school. They paid more money toward student loans than their mortgage during their first few years of marriage, he said.

“We only finished paying off our student loans — check this out, all right, I’m the president of the United States — we only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.”

Obama’s visit was part of a two-day tour with stops at UNC, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Iowa. Obama is campaigning to extend legislation that lowered interest rates for student loans in the past four years.

Without the extension before July 1, the rates will double today’s rate of 3.4 percent. That would translate into an average of $1,000 in additional debt for more than 160,000 students in North Carolina and more than 7 million students nationwide.

Domonique Garland, a senior education major from Greensboro and a recipient of federal loans, introduced the president before his speech.

She said in an interview that she was in her apartment Sunday when she received the phone call telling her she would introduce the president to her peers Tuesday.

“I got the call and as she was telling me, I was silently screaming while running through the apartment,” Garland said.

Because of the current interest rates, Garland said she’s been able to afford her higher education.

Chancellor Holden Thorp also spoke to the crowd at Carmichael before Obama was introduced.

In an interview, Thorp said he was excited to hear Obama stress the importance of higher education as a national issue.

“In the 30 years that I’ve been here, I don’t think there’s been a moment where the future of higher education — public higher education, in particular — was one of a handful of the most important issues facing the country.”

“Today, the president of the United States completely reinforced that,” he added.

In his speech, Obama said universities should endeavor to keep tuition low, or lose support from the federal government.

“I welcome that from him,” Thorp said. “I think we’ve done an amazing job of keeping the costs and the price down here.”

Obama’s message concerning affordability addressed the 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act, legislation that lowered interest rates on student loans and passed with large bipartisan support five years ago. In the U.S. House of Representatives, 77 Republicans voted for the law, and most of them were re-elected.

But extending the existing law has proved more controversial, partly because of its cost — estimated at about $6 billion a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Obama told students to encourage their representatives to vote in favor of the legislation.

“This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s an American issue.”

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said in an interview that he expects students to express their opposition to the higher interest rates to their congressmen, but did not speculate on whether the legislation would expire.

“We need a good bipartisan compromise to keep it from happening.”

Obama referenced many of the themes of his re-election campaign during the speech, reiterating points such as his opposition to tax cuts passed by Republicans and the need for wealthier Americans to pay their “fair share.” North Carolina has emerged as a vital swing state in the presidential election after Obama won the state by only 14,000 votes in 2008.

His administration has been criticized by Republicans for lingering unemployment and a slower-than-expected economic recovery. North Carolina’s unemployment rate ranks among the highest in the nation at 9.7 percent.

While Obama acknowledged that employment rates haven’t improved as much as he would have liked, he said some of the problems began before the economic downturn.

“We still have too many folks in the middle class that are searching for that security that started slipping away years before the recession hit.”

Students who made it inside Carmichael to hear Obama speak began lining up outside the building at around 5 a.m. They said they attended for different reasons, but found the president’s speech interesting and timely.

Even though he doesn’t belong to the same party, sophomore education major James Shafto said Obama appeared personable and relatable throughout the speech and talked about issues that affected him.

“He puts on his pants just like everybody else. And honestly, we’re not all that different.”

The president’s visit made a visible mark on campus, with students ducking yellow caution tape and lining up on Cameron Avenue to catch a glimpse of Obama arriving and departing in his motorcade.

Thorp said the campus atmosphere was familiar.

“It’s somewhat similar to coming home after winning the basketball championship because the whole campus was talking about one thing.”

Senior writers Isabella Cochrane, Andy Thomason and Nicole Comparato contributed reporting.

Contact the State & National Editor at state@dailytarheel.com.

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