State of Union More Forward-Looking, Less Fiery

President Barack Obama used his eighth and final State of the Union address to remind Congress and the viewing public that he would continue his "fight" this year to implement free community college "for every responsible student." He also gave a plug for a major success of his administration: a record-setting number of high school graduations. That has risen by seven percent, from 75 percent when he came into office in 2009 to 82 percent for the 2013-2014 school year.

But other than brief references to an increase in early childhood education, a cut in how much student borrowers need to pay each year on their loans, and boosts in the number of graduates in STEM fields, the speech emphasized other aspects of his two terms in office and his hopes for the future.

The pitch for free college first surfaced in last year's State of the Union, when the president cited new programs in Tennessee and Chicago. Tennessee became the first state to try such an initiative, which promised free community or technical college scholarships to graduating high school seniors in exchange for a day's worth of community service, a commitment to meet with mentors before the start of each semester, and maintenance of a 2.0 grade point average. Tennessee Promise, as the program is called, drew more than 35,000 applications during 2014-2015, its first year of operation. Chicago's City Colleges kicked off a similar program last fall, when it opened the Chicago STAR Scholarship, promising a tuition-free education to graduates with a 3.0 GPA who tested "completion-ready" in math and English.

Compared to Obama's previous State of the Union addresses, this one was fairly mute on the topic of education. In 2009, for example, the president's first address to the Joint Session of Congress promised reform in multiple areas: new incentives for teacher performance, "innovative" programs to help schools close achievement gaps, offering up support to charter schools and challenging Americans personally to "commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training." His stated goal at that time: "By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." Eight years later, the country is seeing progress, but the goal is elusive. According to the latest ranking by the international OECD, South Korea leads all countries as of 2013, with 67 percent of the population in possession of some form of higher education, compared to 44 percent for the United States.

The State of the Union in 2010 saw Obama pressing Congress to enact limits on how much students would be required to pay toward loans upon graduation. By 2014 the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act addressed that by giving students who enrolled in 2014 or later a choice of limiting their payments to 10 percent of income (down from a stipulated 15 percent) or seeing their debts forgiven after 20 years (down from 25 years) or after 10 years in certain public service careers such as teaching and nursing. A year later the same terms were offered to an expanded pool of borrowers."

By 2011 the president used his speech to introduce a new phrase to the American public: "Race to the Top." This competition, as it was termed, originally announced in mid-2009, introduced extra funding as a way to lure states into raising their teaching and learning standards. With the recent enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which hands states more control over education reform efforts, the steam behind the incentive program is dissipating quickly. This was the year when Obama also invited young people to become teachers and encouraged Congress to undertake immigration reform to keep U.S.-born children of undocumented workers — "hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools" — from being deported. Both of those efforts continue to be works in progress.

The president's address in 2012 gave a big call-out to teachers and suggested that the Department of Education help schools fund the best ones and replace those "who just aren't helping kids learn." It was the first year that Obama also alluded in his speech to the use of "better technology" by some colleges to help students finish their degrees faster along with a nudge to the leaders of higher education to find ways to reduce the cost of obtaining a college degree.

The topic of early education surfaced in 2013's address, when Obama informed viewers that he wanted to see "high-quality" preschool education made available "to every single child in America." He also began drawing the line between employer needs and education, promising to reward schools that added science, technology, engineering and math classes (without using the acronym) and developed "new partnerships" with colleges and employers. The speech also announced that his administration would release a "College Scorecard" that would allow parents and students to compare college choices based on "simple criteria" and help them "get the most bang for your educational buck." Although the ED did launch the scorecard, by last year, the White House had relinquished that effort.

STEM received another nod in 2014, as did the idea of universal early education. The President also let the country know that he was determined to see almost every school outfitted with high-speed broadband within five years and announced millions of dollars' worth of corporate support drummed up by his administration for ConnectED. So far, according to research by Education Superhighway, 77 percent of school districts in 2015 were meeting a minimum goal of 100 kbps per student, up from 30 percent of districts in 2013.

In his speech last year, Obama brought up the idea of free community college again and offered thanks to Vice President Joe Biden for his work on job training within community colleges. But, like this year's address, education didn't get the same lengthy and fiery treatment displayed in previous years, nor did it include the historic litany of proposals.

As the New York Times summed up the hour plus a few minutes, Obama used his final speech to Congress and the rest of the country "to paint a hopeful portrait of the nation after seven years of his leadership, with a resurgent economy and better standing in the world despite inequality at home and terrorism abroad."

Appealing for "voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far," he encouraged Americans not to grow "cynical" and to remember that change is possible. "They're out there, those voices. They don't get a lot of attention, nor do they seek it, but they are busy doing the work this country needs doing," he said. Among them, he invoked the image of "the dreamer who stays up late to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early maybe with some extra supplies that she bought because she knows that someday that girl might cure a disease."

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