President Obama issued a powerful challenge to his own administration and to individual citizens Tuesday night, calling on every American to "commit" to attending at least one year of college so that the country can reclaim its mantle as the best educated nation in the world.
"[W]e will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world," the president said in his first speech to a joint session of Congress .
In the "State of the Union-like" address, as some commentators called it, the president identified education as one of three priorities (along with energy and health care) that demand significant attention and investment even at a time in which the government needs to get spending under control to ensure its long-term economic vitality.
But in a speech filled as much with talk of sacrifice as of hopefulness and opportunity, resonant of President Kennedy's famous "ask not what your country can do for you" speech , Obama spoke not just about the government's responsibility to ensure that its citizens can get a higher education, but also about Americans' obligation to take advantage of the opportunities provided to them to get one.
His premise built on many recent assertions (from groups such as the College Board  and the Gates  and Lumina  foundations) that with more occupations than ever requiring more than a high school diploma, the shrinking proportion of Americans with a college education and the growing high school and college dropout rates are a "prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow," Obama said.
The government must do its part, the president said, and his administration is off to a fast start there, building significant new funds for student aid into the economic stimulus plan enacted last week and, through a "stabilization" fund for for states, providing "the resources necessary to prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs" for colleges and schools.
More is to come, too, Obama said, starting in the 2010 budget he plans to submit to Congress tomorrow. Even as he warned in the speech that his administration would get federal spending under control generally -- in part, he vowed, by ending "education programs that don’t work" -- the president said that the country must continue to "invest in the three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future: energy, health care, and education."
As part of that investment, the president renewed his campaign pledge  to "make sure that you can afford a higher education" in exchange for community or national service. (Although he did not detail it in the speech, Obama's proposal was for a fully refundable tax credit to cover $4,000 a year in college costs for four years, in exchange for 100 hours a year of public service. Tuesday night, he urged that legislation to create such a program be named for two lions of the Senate, Orrin Hatch and Edward M. Kennedy).
But just as it is the responsibility of politicians and educators to provide opportunity and to make the education system work, Obama said, "it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.
"But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma," he continued. "And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country -- and this country needs and values the talents of every American."
The centrality of higher education in the president's speech heartened college leaders. "That's the strongest statement we've ever heard about the importance of postsecondary education" in a State of the Union address or the equivalent, said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for public and government affairs at the American Council on Education.
He described the president's call to restore the country to the top spot in international rankings on college going as "certainly an aspirational objective" and "very ambitious," given that the United States has been dropping rather than rising on those lists.
The administration, Hartle said, "already showed in the stimulus that it's willing to provide the resources to help make it happen," but "money alone won't make it happen." The other part of the equation is impressing on individual citizens the importance of getting an education and making clear that going to college is not only possible, but necessary.
And on that score, Hartle said, "it's hard to imagine a more forceful argument" than Obama made Tuesday.