President Obama talks college affordability, loan repayment during speech at Ga. Tech

President Barack Obama on Tuesday laid out an ambitious plan to reform the student loan industry, unveiling on his visit to Atlanta a “student aid bill of rights” that he says will help the growing number of young borrowers.

In a rousing speech to roughly 9,500 people at Georgia Tech, Obama said having the world’s most educated and skilled workforce is critical to democracy and competing in a global economy. But while education is important, Obama said, it’s never been more expensive.

Georgia is home to 1.5 million federal student loan borrowers, accounting for $44.3 billion in outstanding federal student debt, according to data provided by the White House.

“I believe that America is not a place where higher education is a privilege that is reserved for the few,” he said. “America needs to be a place where higher education has to be available for every single person who’s willing to strive for it, who’s willing to work for it.”

Obama described a plan that he said is designed to improve the experience for federal student loan borrowers. It calls for federal agencies to study whether new regulations are needed to protect borrowers and the creation of a centralized complaint system. The plan also requires third-party lenders to better inform students of repayment options.

The president’s one-day visit to Atlanta was the latest stop in a swing through the South that included a weekend trip to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the 1965 attack on civil rights activists. Last week, Obama also visited South Carolina’s Benedict College for a town hall forum.

Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson accompanied the president on his flight to Atlanta Tuesday, where Obama was greeted by Congressman David Scott, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Fulton County Chairman John Eaves. During his speech, Obama revealed he also met with media mogul Tyler Perry before the Georgia Tech event.

The welcome Obama received was a contrast to his last visit to Atlanta in September. In the heat of the mid-term election campaigns, many top Democratic contenders steered clear of the president, and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal avoided him as well. This time, several Democratic leaders, including former gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, appeared at the event. Deal also met with Obama on Tuesday and stayed until the end of the stop at Georgia Tech.

Obama was introduced at Georgia Tech by a third year aerospace engineering student who wrote to the president about her concerns over college affordability.

Republicans expressed skepticism about Obama’s plan to make a college education more attainable, pointing out that college costs have risen sharply during his presidency.

“We can all agree that college should be more accessible, and we cannot continue to burden our children with more debt, but President Obama’s strategy won’t work,”said U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican and Georgia Tech graduate.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urged the president to embrace a House-passed bill to broaden 529 college savings accounts, allowing the money to be used for computers or other technology expenses. The Obama administration recently floated a proposal to tax 529 plans in order to help pay for a proposal to give free community college to all, but the administration backtracked amid a wave of criticism.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities lauded the goal of Obama’s bill of rights but cited some of its shortcomings.

“We caution that making loans more affordable and their repayment less burdensome are no substitute for upfront policies to protect borrowers from crushing debt,” AASCU officials said in a statement Tuesday.

Some Georgia Tech students also gave the initiative mixed reviews. “It sounds nice,” said sophomore Rama Siripuram,19, “but I don’t know how it will achieve those goals. That’s always the problem with big, fluffy speeches like these. It was more a morale boosting message than anything specific.”

The president repeatedly praised Georgia Tech as one of the country’s best values, calling it “one of the best bargains around” and Tech’s students the “embodiment of what we hope for.”

Georgia’s Tech’s selection for the event was a nod to its initiatives to improve college affordability and access. The university is among the first to offer an online only master’s degree in computer science designed to the cost of a traditional program, and through its G. Wayne Clough Georgia Tech Promise program, offers debt-free educations to qualified in-state students.

Staff writers Daniel Malloy and Greg Bluestein contributed to this story.