President Pitches New Plan to Make College More Affordable

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Binghamton, New York (CNN) -- President Barack Obama kicked off a two-day bus tour in upstate New York Thursday, unveiling plans to change the way the federal government will award federal student aid to colleges and universities.

Complaining that "college has never been more expensive," the president said to an audience at the University of Buffalo that "a higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future."

But he added that over the last three decades "tuition has gone up 250%, income has gone up 16%." As a result, Obama pointed out, the "average student owes $26,000" in debt upon graduation.

The White House released state-specific figures Thursday morning. In Alabama, about 388,100 undergraduate students are enrolled in higher education institutions across the state. For the 2011-12 school year, the average cost of attendance for in-state undergraduate students at public colleges and universities living on campus reached $18,818 in Alabama. And according to estimates from The Institute for College Access and Success, graduating seniors who borrowed to attend college in Alabama left school with an average of $25,192 in debt.

The president said he intends to focus on proposals aimed at curbing the rising cost of higher education, adding "a higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future."

He said the plan will have three main goals.

"We're gonna start rating colleges. Rate them on who is offering best value so students and taxpayers can get the best bang for your buck."

Obama also said his plan would "jumpstart new competition between colleges" and would "make sure that if you have to take on debt...that you have ways to manage and afford it."

Earlier Thursday, the White House released details of the plan saying the "financial aid to college value" plan is based on a new ranking system to be carried out by the Department of Education.

The proposal also advocates for a "pay as you earn" system for the repayment of debt, by which borrowers would be able to "cap their federal student loan payments at 10 percent of their monthly income."

Currently, this option is only available to those students who began taking on student loans after 2008, or who have not borrowed since 2011.

Additionally, the president's plan recommends tying academic progress to the distribution of student aid, specifically suggesting that students "complete a certain percentage of their classes before receiving continued funding," which the White House says would encourage more students to graduate on time, thus incurring less debt.

In his speech, he also hit Republicans, saying affordable college and a better economy aren't the high priorities in Washington.

"Rather than keeping focus on a growing economy that creates good middle class jobs, we've seen a faction of Republicans in Congress suggest that maybe America shouldn't pay its bills that have already been run up, that we should shut down government if they can't shut down Obamacare," he said. "That won't grow our economy, that won't create jobs."

After leaving Buffalo, the president heads to Henninger High School in Syracuse, New York, for an evening event that will also focus on the cost of college tuition.

The White House confirmed Thursday that Vice President Joe Biden will join the president in Scranton, Pennsylvania for a final stop.

Student loans -- another critical element in the cost of higher education -- were a topic of fierce debate before Congress took its August recess.

In the end, legislation was passed to keep interest rates on loans down, but only after intense negotiations and gridlock that forced the law to be enacted retroactively, since lawmakers were unable to come to a consensus before rates rose.

The Republican National Committee criticized the bus tour, sending out an email to journalists purportedly from, "the desk of a lame duck president." The press release continued, "[President] Obama officially embraces his lame duck status doing what he does best -- giving another speech with no record to show for it."

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