President Obama discusses free community college during Indianapolis visit


Lacey McLaughlin

President Barack Obama addresses a town hall meeting Friday at Ivy Tech near downtown Indianapolis.

Air Force One touched down at the Indianapolis International Airport Friday afternoon carrying President Barack Obama. The stop in Indiana was a part of the President’s nationwide tour to conservative states following the announcement of his free community college plan. Administration officials revealed that the President chose to present his budget at Ivy Tech because it is the nation’s largest statewide community college system.

A crowd of hundreds awaited the president’s arrival inside of Ivy Tech’s packed conference room. Anticipation filled the air as smooth jazz music played throughout the room. The crowd was hushed at each musical pause, as everyone anticipated the President to arrive on campus at any minute. At approximately 2:15 p.m., mayor Greg Ballard gave President Obama his introduction.

“Mr. President, your partnership and shared vision for our community has continued to shape Indianapolis into a thriving global city,” Ballard said. Minutes later, the President was welcomed to the podium with a standing ovation.

The opening of the President’s speech consisted of bipartisanship. He shared his first experience while traveling abroad as a freshman U.S. senator with former US senator Richard Lugar. At the end of the story, Obama thanked Lugar who served as a republican in the Senate.

“Sometimes it seems as if our politics are more divided than ever; that in parts of Indiana, the only blue you’ll ever see is on the Colts sign, and in Chicago, the only red is for the Chicago Bulls,” Obama said. “But I believe that we actually have so much in common than not.”

The President spoke of unity and compromise instead of division that Washington is facing right now.

“There is not a liberal America or a conservative America – there is the United States of America,” Obama said. The President suggested that republicans come up with a plan of their own if they do not agree with him, rather than ignoring issues altogether.

The President’s talk included a 20-minute speech promoting his framed community college proposal. He told the audience that his plan would provide a two years of tuition-free  community college for students with a grade point average of a 2.5 or better. The plan would be funded through the taxes of the wealthy and by closing corporate tax loopholes.

Obama recalled a letter he received from Jylian Milham, a hardworking Fisher’s mother of four who came to Ivy Tech to reinvent herself.  A few years ago Milham was going through a divorce and had to find a way to support herself. She did not have a college degree and could not a job that paid more than minimum wage. She put herself through college with federal and state grants.

“As she put it, I’m a mom with four kids and I have everything coming against me. So Jylian came here to Ivy Tech to invest in herself,” the President said. “We can create structures of opportunity like we have here at Ivy Tech. That’s something we can do for everybody,” he said. “And that’s what keeps me going. I want to make sure this is a country where hard work is rewarded and you get a chance to make a decent living.”

The President said that he believed that no responsible student should have to be in an enormous amount of  debt after attending college.

“Here in America, it shouldn’t matter how much money your folks make; if you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to get that opportunity. And you shouldn’t necessarily have $100,000 worth of debt when you leave,” he said. The friendly crowd roared in applause.

After his speech, Obama opened up the floor for a 55 minute question and answer session.

“If community college becomes free, do you feel as if the value of having an associate’s degree will begin to drop?” an Ivy Tech student asked.

“Absolutely not,” the President said. “But I think it’s a good question. I’ve been asked this question before. I don’t know where this is coming from. The issue is not how much money you’re paying. The issue is what kind of education is it (college) providing you.”

The talk ended with a final standing ovation before the President made his escorted exit.

The President’s plan to equip young people with 21st century skills seems promising for many while some republicans hold reservations. Could we possibly see bipartisan support in Washington?

We shall see.