Obama Answers Students' Questions During Conference Call

This story was written by Colin Booth, The Daily Athenaeum


Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama held a conference call with 75 college and university reporters on Saturday afternoon to make a brief statement about the importance of the youth vote in the November election and to field questions.

One of the hallmarks of this campaign has been the extraordinary involvement at every level of young people and college-aged voters in every single state where weve been involved. I think that theres a sense among the next generation of voters that were in a defining moment in our history, Obama said.

Obama praised college reporters on their leadership positions throughout the country and their roles in involving young people in an election he called as important as any election youll ever participate in.

I think that people recognize that if we dont deal with some of these critical issues now then, at some point we may be too late, he said.

Q: What are your thoughts on affirmative action and how would you change policy if you did become president? asked Jane Coaston, executive editor of the Michigan Review of the University of Michigan.

A: Well, I believe that, if properly structured, affirmative action can increase diversity and promote opportunity. It can be abused if its structured as a rigid quota in a way that is not fair to students and applicants. I think the Supreme Court basically got the ruling right back in 2003 because what it did was, it said where youve got a rigid quota and numerical targets but dont take into account the qualities of the individual applicant, then thats unconstitutional. Where you take race into account as just one of many potential hardships a student may have overcome and where the issue is, how do we expand diversity on a college campus that may be legitimate? We have to look at it on a case-by-case basis.

But heres the broader point, is that, the biggest challenge for a lot of students is not issues of affirmative action. The biggest challenge is how do young people afford to go to college in the first place, and if the average college graduate has almost $22,000 in student loans these days, all of you on the phone probably recognize that a lot of people are priced out of the market and are having trouble going to college regardless of whether theyre accepted or not. And so thats why Ive put forward a plan that says were going to provide a $4,000 tuition credit every student, every year in exchange for some form of community service, whether its military service or working in the Peace Corps or providing 100 hours of community service during a year a homeless shelter or veterans home we will make college affordable for you, and well pay for it by getting banks out of the business of mediating student loans between the government and students.

One last point Id like to make about affirmative action I think that, although it can be a useful tool, the truth is, in terms of bringing about long-term racial equality, its a limited tool. The biggest problem for African-American and Hispanic students at this point is not a lack of affirmative action. The problem is a drop-out rate in public schools K through 12 that arent producing enough high school graduates who can attempt university, (who) dont have the skills, so thats why its so important to be investing on the front end as well as the back end of the educational experience.

Q: As a senior, Im prepared to enter the job market in a few months, and with the economy the way it is, I just want to know what you plan on doing to ensure a healthy job market for myself and millions of other seniors who are going to be graduating this year and looking to be getting a job after graduation? asked Dan Petty, staff writer at The Collegian of the University of Richmon

A: We have gone through eight years of economic mismanagement, and were now seeing the final verdict on a failed economic policy that says you give more and more to those with the most. You let Wall Street run wild. You strip away consumer protections and regulations, now prosperity is supposed to trickle down on everybody. It just has not worked.

Were going to have to dig ourselves out of a hole, and I dont think theres any doubt at this point that were going to be in a recession for several months, and how deep and long is not yet determined.

The rescue package to try and restart the credit market is a start, but its only a start. What were going to have to do long-term is reinvigorate the fundamentals of our economy, and that means that we are making college affordable and improving K through 12 education, investing in early child care, improving teacher salaries and giving them more support providing more college scholarships, so were producing more scientists and engineers and skilled workers. Thats the key to long-term economic growth.

Q: How do you feel about Sen. (Ted) Kennedys Serve America Act, and how could service programs like this affect the economy? asked Erin Stevenson, MUTV of the University of Missouri.

A: I like Sen. Kennedys Serve America Act, partly because it drew from many of the proposals I made last year in my call for expansion of national service. I think that one of the most important experiences that young people can have is serving their country or their community. And for me, when I was your age, I started getting active in various community issues, and thats part of the reason why I ended up becoming a community organizer. I learned more from the experience of working alongside people who had lost their jobs in steel mills than I would ever learn in a classroom.

And so what we want to do is double the Peace Corps, we want to provide more opportunities to serve through AmeriCorps programs like Teach for America. And what Ive done is Ive tied it to college scholarships, so that young people not only are encouraged to serve, they are in a position to pay for their college education, not be loaded up so severely with debt.

And I think young people are eager and ready to serve. We just have not asked enough of this generation, and I see young people volunteering and getting involved all the time, but they become cynical about politics, and part of what I want to do is remind people theres enormous opportunities to serve in government as well. We need the best and the brightest being involved in public service voluntary if thats the option they choose but also we want people in the foreign service. We want people in our military. We want people who are willing to do outstanding work in the federal government and the state and local governments.
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