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State of the Union: What can Obama do about college tuition?

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“The devil is in the details if it’s going to be done effectively,” she says.

As for Obama’s other proposals, Kirshstein says she was glad to see him sound the dual themes of states making higher ed a higher priority in their budgets, and colleges and universities doing more with less.

These aren’t new themes for the administration, which has worked to improve student aid by increasing the maximum Pell Grant size last year and moving to a system of direct government loans, and which hosted a summit on higher education productivity and cost in December. But the ideas seem to be getting increased attention now.

“Those of us in higher education are always happy when higher ed issues are recognized because so much of the attention typically goes to K-12,” says Kirshstein. Obama, she believes, “is indeed serious about this issue.”

Not that he neglected K-12 topics in his speech.

Some themes that he has hit before, like calling on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (sometimes better known in its current incarnation as No Child Left Behind), were notably absent – perhaps a reflection of the impossibility of getting such a bill passed in an election year.

But in his speech Obama continued to preach the importance of teaching and accountability. His education agenda so far has defied typical partisan lines: Some of its most frequent critics are loyal Democrats, including the teachers’ unions, while some Republicans have praised it.

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