Expanding Opportunity for Every American: Education and the State of the Union

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“I want our actions to tell every child, in every neighborhood: your life matters; and we are as committed to improving your life chances as we are for our own kids.” – President Barack Obama

On Tuesday, President Obama delivered his sixth State of the Union address. The President’s speech reflected his strong belief that education is a vital investment in America’s economic competitiveness, in its communities, and in its people.

The President discussed America’s economic recovery, noting that since 2010, our nation has put more of its citizens back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined.  At a time when millions of Americans now work in jobs that didn’t exist even 10 or 20 years ago, education—particularly higher education—is more important than ever before in the effort to equip our young people with the skills they’ll need to succeed in the well-paying jobs of the 21st century knowledge economy.

In his speech, the President noted the significant educational progress that our nation’s schools, teachers, and students have made – including young students earning math and reading scores at record levels, a high school graduation rate at an all-time high, and more Americans finishing college than ever before.

While celebrating progress, the President noted we must work to ensure that education lives up to its promise of bolstering and expanding the middle class and helping more young people to achieve their greatest potential.

He stated: “America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world. But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to step up our game; we need to do more.”

By the end of this decade, two in three jobs will require some form of higher education. Yet, as the President noted, too many bright, hard-working students are priced out of college. In his address, the President laid out his top priorities – all aimed at expanding opportunity and opening the gateway to the middle class to more Americans.

He committed to his recently announced America’s College Promise proposal, which would make two years of community college free for responsible students; and he asked more businesses to offer educational benefits and paid apprenticeships, giving workers the chance to advance in their careers, even if they haven’t achieved higher education. The President also pledged to make quality childcare more available and more affordable for every middle-class and low-income family with young children, and to extend the reach of technology and the Internet into every classroom.

Each year, the First Lady invites exceptional Americans—whose stories often reflect key themes in the speech—to join her in her viewing box. This year, several educators and students were selected. Learn more about these special guests.

Below are education excerpts from the speech:

Higher Education:

“… I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college – to zero.

Keep in mind: forty percent of our college students choose community college.  Some are young and starting out.  Some are older and looking for a better job.  Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market.  Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt.  Understand, you’ve got to earn it – you’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time.  Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible.  I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.  Let’s stay ahead of the curve. And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure those already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.”

Job Training and Workforce Development:

“… To give working families a fair shot, we still need more employers to see beyond next quarter’s earnings and recognize that investing in their workforce is in their company’s long-term interest.”

“[T]o make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills. …

Thanks to Vice President Biden’s great work to update our job training system, we’re connecting community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics.  Tonight, I’m also asking more businesses to follow the lead of companies like CVS and UPS, and offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships – opportunities that give workers the chance to earn higher-paying jobs even if they don’t have a higher education.”


“I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”

Early Learning/Childcare:

“First – middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change.  That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement – and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year. …

In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever.  It’s not a nice-to-have – it’s a must-have.  It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or as a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.  And that’s why my plan will make quality childcare more available and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America – by creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year.”

State of the Union Resources

Tiffany Taber is Chief of Staff for Communications Development at the U.S. Department of Education.