WASHINGTON -- "Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine."
No statement in President Obama's State of the Union speech  last night better summed up the protected status he envisions for the federal programs most important to colleges and universities, even as his administration vows to embrace a more austere approach to federal spending.
The president's speech was relatively short on details about programs he would seek to shield from the overall five-year freeze on domestic spending he proposes; it made no mention of Pell Grants or other financial aid (which many college leaders fear could face cutbacks if Republicans stick to their goal of slashing domestic spending), and referred only in passing to increases in spending on biomedical and other research. (A fact sheet  released by the White House during the speech, however, did say the president "will continue efforts to strengthen the Pell Grant, promote more affordable student loans, and revitalize and expand access to America’s community colleges.")
But the central theme of the 50-minute address was that for the United States to rebuild its economy and "win the future" in a competition with rising powers such as China and India, it must "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world."
Yet it must do that, the president acknowledged, without burying its citizens "under a mountain of debt," which will require shrinking federal spending to diminish the massive budget deficit.
Doing so "will require painful cuts," Obama said, though he mentioned few (and Republicans, on a day when the GOP-led House passed a resolution  calling for rolling back federal spending on all non-security programs to their 2008 levels, derided his proposals as inadequate to the task). But in making those cuts, the president argued (using his airplane analogy), it would be a mistake to shortchange investments that will ensure a stronger economy and country down the road. "It may feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you'll feel the impact," he said.
Resuscitating the "Sputnik" language  that he used several weeks ago during a trip to North Carolina's Forsyth Technical Community College (one of whose students was in First Lady Michelle Obama's box for the speech), Obama said his 2012 budget would continue to push the country toward the goal he set two years ago to "reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race." To help pay for increased spending on energy and other research, the president called on Congress to eliminate the "billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies." He also vowed to veto any legislation that contains Congressional earmarks to specific recipients.
The president had relatively little new to say about other aspects of higher education, though he reiterated his call for ensuring that America "will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."
He urged Congress to follow up on its 2010 overhaul of the student loan programs and $40 billion investment in Pell Grants and other programs with a modest goal: making permanent the $10,000 tax credit for college expenses. And he put in an indirect plug (without naming it) for the recently defeated DREAM Act and for changes in immigration policies that now require foreign graduate students to return to their home countries as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, "to compete against us."
"Let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses," he said, "and further enrich this nation."
And with the coming abandonment of the government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gay service members in the military, the president urged all colleges to "open their doors to our military recruiters and ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past."