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Academics skeptical of Obama's message on higher education

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 11:49 p.m.
President Barack Obama addresses a packed house at the University of Buffalo on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 in Buffalo, New York. The president was on a bus tour of Western New York.
President Barack Obama addresses a packed house at the University of Buffalo on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 in Buffalo, New York. The president was on a bus tour of Western New York.

SCRANTON — In a corner of the state with the highest sustained jobless rate of his administration, President Obama on Friday intends to speak to young people about the importance of getting a college degree during what experts call a stagnant economic recovery.

His speech at the private, two-year Lackawanna College is the last stop of a two-day bus tour that began at the University at Buffalo and stopped at State University of New York and Henninger High School in Syracuse. He said his administration will address a “crisis” of college affordability with proposals to help middle-class families.

In Buffalo, Obama announced he would have the Department of Education develop a “college scorecard” by 2014 to rate schools based on the value students get for tuition, taking into account the percentage of students receiving Pell grants, average student debt incurred by graduates, graduation rates and average tuition.

“Higher education is still the best ticket to upward mobility in America, and if we don't do something about keeping it within reach, it will create problems for generations to come,” Obama said.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus criticized the bus tour before it began, telling reporters, “The Obama presidency and Democratic policies have made life harder for young Americans.”

The president's visit comes as his popularity slumps. Despite Obama's renewed focus on the economy since mid-July, he scores worse with voters on that topic than he did in June, according to a mid-August Gallup survey. His 35 percent approval rating on the issue fell 7 percentage points, and his ratings on taxes and the federal budget deficit each fell 5 points.

Almost six years since the start of the Great Recession, “the unemployment rate remains well above the postwar norms,” said Allan Meltzer, a Carnegie Mellon University economics professor. “Much of the decline in the unemployment rate, from a peak above 10 percent to the low 7 percent range, is the result of workers leaving the labor force.”

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metro area holds the distinction of having Pennsylvania's highest jobless rate — 9.2 percent for 39 consecutive months, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Five months of decreasing unemployment in the area happened in small increments, such as a one-tenth of a percentage point drop in June.

“Scranton has become the face of the slow economic recovery during the Obama years,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “Unemployment in the area remains stubbornly high and economic growth fairly limited.”

Many jobs recently created are part-time, low-wage positions, Meltzer said.

“Although the president talks about aiding the middle class, the spread in the income distribution is greater than when he took office, and the poverty rate has increased to a record high,” Meltzer said.

A record number of Americans — 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population — are classified as poor, largely from lingering unemployment. The Associated Press reported on a July survey that found four out of five adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare at some point in their lives.

Obama's campus speeches stress to younger people the relationship between higher education and jobs in a changing economy. The White House website links education with “true middle-class security.”

But, Borick said, “post-secondary education needs to be nimble enough that individuals struggling in the new economy can find ... opportunity.”

A recent Pew Research Center analysis of census data shows 36 percent of adults ages 18 to 31 live with their parents — the highest share in four decades.

“Lack of economic independence is the basic reason,” said Richard Fry, senior research associate at Pew, who noted that “all age groups were hard-hit by the recession, but especially the nation's young adults.”

The job market “hasn't been particularly robust,” Fry said. “Whether it is even appropriate to even label it a recovery is a little bit of a judgment call.”

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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