Chapel Hill, N.C. — Courting college voters, President Barack Obama on Tuesday told students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel HIll that Congress needs to keep the cost of college loans from skyrocketing for millions of students.
In his fifth visit to North Carolina in the last 10 months, Obama pushed Congress to extend a 2007 law that cut interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans for low-and-middle-income undergraduates, saying that college must be more affordable for students across the country.
If the law is allowed to expire as scheduled, the rates on federal student loans will double on July 1, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The White House says it would cost 7 million students $1,000 more to pay off their loans.
"Higher education is the single most important investment you can make in your future," Obama told about 8,000 students gathered at Carmichael Arena. "This has never been more important."
An increase in interest rates on federal student loans would add pressure to North Carolina college students who have already seen college costs go up in the last two months.
The president's visit Tuesday comes two months after scores of angry students held a raucous protest as the University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted to increase tuition across the system of 16 university campuses by an average of nearly 9 percent, or over $400 a year.
The undergraduate North Carolina resident student currently pays an average tuition and fees of $5,294 a year, not including books and living expenses. It is higher at the system's two flagship schools, with UNC-Chapel Hill students paying $7,008 and North Carolina State University charging $6,964.
Average annual tuition and fees at public four-year colleges in the U.S. rose 8 percent this year to $8,244 for in-state students, according to the College Board. Obama told students Tuesday that college costs have more than doubled since many of them were born.
"This country has always made a commitement to put a good education within the reach of all who are willing to work for it," said Obama. "That’s what makes us special. That’s what kept us at the forefront of business, and technology, and healthcare. And that’s a commitment we have to reaffirm today."
Carmichael Arena took on a pep rally-like atmosphere in the hours before Obama's visit as music played and the crowd chanted repeatedly. Students camped out over the weekend in an effort to get tickets to Obama's remarks.
Obama landed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport around 11:40 a.m. before beginning the short drive to Carmichael Auditorium. A State Highway Patrol escort blocked parts of Interstates-540 and I-40 between RDU and Chapel Hill while Obama's motorcade traveled to UNC.
For many students, including sophomore Karla Towle, the issue of student loans and college debt is personal.
"Tuition has gone up, and I'm basically living off loans," she said.
Obama connected with that sentiment midway through his speech, telling students that he and his wife Michelle finished paying off their own student loans about eight years ago. The emphasis on his personal experience set up a contrast with his likely Republican presidential opponent, Mitt Romney, whose father was a wealthy auto executive.
"Michelle and I have been in your shoes, we didn't come from wealthy families," he said. "When a big chunk of the paycheck goes toward loan debt, that's not just tough on you, that's not just tough on middle class families, it's painful for the economy."
Romney said Monday that he also supports keeping student loan rates low. He also criticized Obama’s economic leadership.
"Given the bleak job prospects that young Americans coming out of college face today, I encourage Congress to temporarily extend the low rate," Romney said in a statement.
Both the Obama and Romney campaigns are fighting for the support of voters buried in college debt and are championing what amounts to a one-year, election-year fix at a cost of roughly $6 billion.
Congress seems headed that way. Members of both parties are assessing ways to cover the costs and win votes in the House and Senate, which is far from a political certainty. All parties involved have political incentive to keep the rates as they are.
Obama carried voters between the ages of 18-29 by a margin of about 2-to-1 in 2008, but many recent college graduates have faced high levels of unemployment. That raises concerns for the president about whether they will vote and volunteer for him in such large numbers again.
Obama urged students to take their message to social media sites like Twitter to pressure their lawmakers.
The president was also speaking Tuesday at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and then at the University of Iowa on Wednesday. All three schools are in states that Obama carried in 2008, and all three states are considered among the several that could swing to Obama or Romney and help decide a close 2012 election.