Local News

Students glad Obama can relate to college loan problems

Posted April 24, 2012 4:36 p.m. EDT
Updated April 25, 2012 6:33 a.m. EDT

— Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were eager to hear President Barack Obama talk about student loan debt Tuesday when he visited the Triangle, but for many, simply seeing a sitting United States President provided quite a thrill. 

For many students, the excitement of being inside 8,000-seat Carmichael Arena didn't have anything to do with politics. 

"Just being able to say you saw the President of the United States, especially being like 20 feet away," said Emily Mellnik, a sophomore at UNC.

For a select few closer to the stage than Mellnik, shaking Obama's hand was the highlight of the afternoon. 

"I said 'Thank you for coming,' but I really didn't know what to say," said Paige Comparato, also a sophomore. "Everyone around me just kind of didn't really know what to say. I will definitely remember the mood of the room and the excitement around campus the last few days."

In his fifth visit to the Triangle in the last 10 months, Obama did know what to say, urging students to support him in his push to extend a 2007 law that cut interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans for low-and-middle-income undergraduates. 

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.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, who spoke to the crowd at Carmichael Arena shortly before Obama's speech, said hosting a sitting President of the United States was an honor for the University. He also said he was glad Obama came to North Carolina with an agenda that matches what he's been talking to students and university leaders about in recent months. 

"Of course we are concerned about student debt, not just for our students but for students around the country," Thorp said. "As these stories of student debt continue to build up, then that becomes one of the dominant narratives that people use to describe higher education."

Jared Simmons, a senior from Wilmington, was one of many who came to Carmichael Arena anxious to hear Obama's speech and learn if the president had a plan to deal with the $25,000 worth of student loans he is facing upon graduation. 

"He is pressuring the Republicans to really dig down deep and help the middle class out," Simmons said. 

Simmons, who said he's leaning toward voting for Obama in November, was still undecided after Tuesday's speech. 

Maggie Ellis, a graduate student, does plan to vote for Obama in November. She is facing more than $60,000 in student loan debt from her undergraduate education and said she appreciated the president telling the audience that he and his wife only paid off their student debt about eight years ago. 

"I thought it was really nice to hear how he could relate to having student loans," said Ellis. "You never really think about someone in that position being in the same position as you." 

Freshman Matthew Taylor echoed those sentiments, saying he felt like Obama can relate to the position many UNC students will be in after graduation.

"There was definitely a personal atmosphere to it," Taylor said. "It wasn't just trying 'four more years please.'"

Ryan Williams, a Mitt Romney spokesperson, said Tuesday's speech was more of a campaign stop than a policy speech, saying that Obama is avoiding a discussion on economic policy and has failed young adults in the job market. 

"This clearly was a political speech," said Williams. "It's nothing new from this president. This president clearly like to campaign instead of actually leading and governing this country."

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 swing states in a 2012 race between Obama and Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee.