Obama weighs college tuition as a president and a dad

President Obama, in Palm Springs for President's Day weekend, is facing a personal deadline: sending his first child to college.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

He’s getting sappy on college campuses, wringing his hands about his tuition savings plan and waxing nostalgic about his own years as an undergraduate.

President Obama is hurtling toward a deadline that looms over him much like the end of his time in office does — the day his first child heads to college.

Like other parents, he’s thinking about how much it will cost to provide a higher education for his daughter Malia, a high school junior whose recent tour of colleges on the East and West coasts has been hard to hide from social media.

Unlike most fathers, though, Obama feels he can do something about it. In this case, the personal experience is clearly informing the president’s public policy.


In his State of the Union address last month, Obama proposed eliminating so-called 529 college savings plans, though the White House backed off the idea once it became clear that it would be unpopular. He also began pushing a proposal last month that would make the first two years of college free to all students as long as they were willing to take their core classes at a community college.

Fatherhood and work have intertwined throughout Obama’s career. Not long after his daughter Sasha was diagnosed as an infant with meningitis, Obama, then a state senator, introduced a child health bill in the Illinois Legislature.

As his girls and their friends progressed in school, he began to publicly criticize President George W. Bush as underfunding the federal No Child Left Behind initiative. In his 2004 campaign for U.S. Senate, while Malia began first grade, he talked about investing in after-school programs and early childhood education.

To be sure, Obama has hounded colleges to get their costs under control for years. Nowadays, though, the president is being uncharacteristically public about what’s going on at home, mentioning the prospect of being a college dad — and the question of paying tuition — in speeches.


In one, he explained why he had changed his mind about backing the 529 proposal.

“I have 529s for both Malia and Sasha,” he said this month in Indiana, noting that both his daughters are on a path to college. “The problem is when you looked at the statistics, the people who used them most were folks who were a little on the high end. And so our thinking was you could save money by eliminating the 529 and shift the money into loan programs that were a little more broadly based.”

It wasn’t entirely clear whether he was worried about the effect on public policy or on himself.

“There’s probably a little bit of transference, remembering his own excitement at qualifying for these great schools but also carrying that underlying anxiety about affording it,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a presidential historian who studies first families.


That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, whose daughters Jenna and Barbara began college a few months before their father was sworn in as president.

“All of our leaders do better when they have that sensitivity about what’s going on at the ground level,” McBride said. “He’s not just dealing with this based on a briefing he got from the secretary of Education,” she said of Obama. “He’s walking through it personally.”

Obama is not the first “first dad” to send a daughter off to school while running the country. Decades ago, Margaret Truman and Lynda Bird Johnson commuted across town to George Washington University.

Secret Service agents accompanied Amy Carter to Brown University, Chelsea Clinton to Stanford University and Bush’s twins to Yale University and the University of Texas.


Michelle Obama is taking care to keep Malia Obama’s deliberations private, but visiting colleges in the age of Twitter means never having to announce that you’re touring UC Berkeley, Stanford University, New York University and Columbia University.

Thanks mostly to the proceeds from writing best-selling books, it has been years since the president needed to worry about money, said one close family friend, but he remembers struggling to pay for college.

“It’s still fresh in his mind,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president who has known the Obama family for years. “That’s the difference between him and other people who talk about this. For them, it’s theoretical. For him, it’s real.”

Obama recently recalled that he and his wife shared not just the bonds of love but “the bonds of debt.” He began at Occidental College, then graduated from Columbia University before entering the work world and eventually Harvard Law School; Michelle Obama went to Princeton University and Harvard Law School.


Today, those elite schools rank among the most expensive in the country. Parents, Obama says, have to be conscientious consumers when looking at college costs.

He told an audience recently that students were looking for “fancy gyms and gourmet food and really spiffy dorms.”

By contrast, when he started his freshman year at Occidental, he said, the weight rooms amounted to “not much more than a medicine ball.”

Before he gave an address at a cybersecurity summit here Friday, Obama told a crowd filled mostly with college students that he had been taking a close look at Stanford’s campus.


“I kind of want to go here!” he said. “I was trying to figure out why it is that a really nice place like this is wasted on young people, who don’t fully appreciate what you’ve got.”

After all these years, said Jarrett, the question of college affordability is a point of connection between Obama and middle-class families.

“He relates to them,” she said.