WASHINGTON – Ten months after coming to Buffalo to announce a series of initiatives to make college more affordable, President Obama took his effort to Tumblr on Tuesday, joining the founder of the microblogging website for a session where the president used questions from students to pressure Congress into acting to cut student loan rates.
And through it all and maybe unbeknownst to the president until later, a reminder of that August trip to Buffalo looked on: Rebecca Jasen, the 18-year-old valedictorian of Sweet Home High School in Amherst, who submitted a question that ended up not getting asked during the 50-minute White House session.
A day after signing an executive order limiting student loan payments to 10 percent of a young worker’s income, Obama told the crowd of students at the White House session that his action was just not enough.
“I think everybody on Tumblr should be contacting their senators and finding out where they stand” on legislation that would cut student loan rates, Obama said.
Afterwards, Jasen said she would do just that.
“I fully agree with everything he said,” said Jasen, the daughter of Marianne and Christopher Jasen, who skipped her last three days of high school for the opportunity to attend the event.
The event played into a larger partisan drama over the Obama’s higher-education initiatives and the Senate bill to cut loan rates.
To hear Obama tell it, he expanded that 10 percent income cap on student loan repayments – which had previously been in place only for students who have taken out loans since 2011 – because it’s obvious that too many students are saddled with too much debt.
“Today, the average debt burden, even for young people who are going to a public university, is about $30,000,” the president said.
Republicans stressed that they’re concerned about big college debts, too, but they argued that Obama is going about fixing the problem in the wrong way.
“It doesn’t take a degree in political science to see today’s announcement as another distraction from the president’s failed policies,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, said after Obama announced the student loan payment cap on Monday. “Nothing the president announced today will make the cost of higher education more affordable; nothing the president promised will help graduates find the jobs and opportunities they desperately need.”
Nevertheless, the White House said 318,874 students in New York State alone would benefit from his executive action – while 1.58 million would be able to refinance their loans at lower rates under legislation proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Warren’s bill would fund those refinanced rates with revenues from new taxes on millionaires and billionaires, which is why Republicans portray it as more of a political statement than actual legislation that could pass a Congress with a GOP-led House and a Senate where the Republican minority has the power to stop most legislation in its tracks.
Jasen is one of them. As she prepares to go off to Rochester Institute of Technology later this year, she submitted a question to the president via Tumblr:
“I’m valedictorian of my class. I volunteer at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. And I’m still going to graduate with $50,000 in debt. What more do you want from high school students to be able to afford college?”
David Karp, the 27-year old founder of Tumblr who moderated the event – and who never went to college – never asked Jasen’s question, even though she expected to be able to ask it herself after the White House sent her an email Saturday inviting her to the event. Not that that was much of a disappointment to Jasen.
“It was absolutely amazing to be there in that room,” said Jasen, who sat in the front row about five feet from the president and met him briefly afterward.