On Monday, the President of the United States of America stood on a stage in Austin, Texas and mused that the last time he had visited the city, his hair was not quite so gray. With signature rhetorical flourishes, he spoke at length about the indomitable nature of both the Texas Longhorns and the American nation, the way that each “play[s] for first,” and his conviction that making America a successful country in the 21st century requires making sure that “every single young person has the best education that this country has to offer.”
His half-hour speech in the University of Texas gym, where 4,000 youthful supporters came to see him, sketched a vague strategy for higher education: make college more affordable, encourage college students to earn their degrees, and ensure that those degrees prepare them for careers. “Education is an economic issue,” Obama said. “Education is the economic issue of our time.”
Only feet away was a student whose education had become a non-issue, since he couldn’t use his recently acquired bachelor’s degree. José Torres, a UT political science alumnus, entered the United States as an undocumented child at four years old, and has lived in Austin since. “The last time Obama came to Texas he mentioned that the Dream Act could be passed in the first 100 days of his administration, and that hasn’t happened yet,” said Torres.
A DREAM activist who works with the University Leadership Initiative, Torres was arrested on July 21st for staging a peaceful sit-in at the office of Harry Reid, Senate majority leader. Since Reid has the ability to put the DREAM Act on the Senate agenda, Torres said, “It gave the message that I’m willing to lose everything, that everything is on the line for me.” Still, he and other undocumented students expressed some disappointment with Obama’s speech. “He once came and told us that we needed to work with him, and that he was pushing with us shoulder to shoulder. I left wanting to hear a little bit more from my President, the one that I helped get elected.”
Indeed, it seemed as though the speech was leaden with things left unsaid. The President skirted around the obvious Texas politics that brought him to the state (a DNC fundraiser that brought in over a million dollars); a thirty-second meeting with his vocal critic, Governor Rick Perry; and the conspicuous absence of Democratic gubernatorial contender Bill White, who kept his distance to keep the support of his more moderate supporters. "But [Obama] can speak," said Maggie Cheu, an entering UT law student. "And while he presented ideas without any clear-cut plan—very political of him—he made [his goals for higher education] sound so easy."
“Easy” was promising eight million more American college graduates by 2020—in a state, no less, that boasts one of the highest high school dropout rates in the country, has twice rejected the nation’s “Race to the Top” plan, and has resisted federal efforts to keep its education budget steady instead of paying down the state debt.
As Obama left the arena, a Sousa march playing in his wake, he shook hands with dozens of star-struck students who will be seeing almost a four percent increase in tuition this year. Hopefully, their college degrees will usher them into an economic climate that allows for the affordability and accessibility heralded by the President.