WATERTOWN – President Barack Obama became the fourth United States president to travel to all 50 states after he stepped off Air Force One Friday afternoon at the Watertown Regional Airport.
Obama recognized South Dakota’s distinction as the last state left for him to visit in his commencement address to the graduates of the Class of 2015 Lake Area Tehnical Insitute, a two-year communtity college.
“I am thrilled to be here. I have now been to all 50 states as president and I was saving the best for last,” Obama said. “To the other 49, I hope you take no offense.”
Govenor Dennis Daugaard took to the stage before the president’s commencement address and encouraged students to stay in South Dakota after graduation.
“Sometimes in South Dakota we have a little bit of an infeirority complex because we are a small state and because we are rural. We sometimes believe that we can’t be the first, or the best or the most innovative,” Daugaard said. “But that’s not true and Lake Area Technical Insititute is a good reminder that we can compete with anyone in the country.”
In his commencement address to the 270 graduates, Obama highlighted stories of graduating students and college faculty. He said community colleges are important to America’s economic future.
“This is a small school in a small town in a state that is wonderful, but not a huge population,” Obama said. “The question is why am I here? I believe that in a fast-paced, hyper-connected, constantly changing world there are few institutions more important to America’s economic future than community colleges.”
Obama addressed the economic issues seen by graduates in their lifetimes, praising their commitment to higher education and encouraging them to keep striving for success.
“You’ve seen a lot of the perils of this economy first hand. How good jobs and entire industries can vanish or be shipped overseas. How (a) crisis because of some irresponsible folks on Wall Street can punish families on Main Street,” Obama said. “But instead of looking backwards, you looked forward.”
The president also said the college, which has a graduation rate three times that of the national average, is a good example of why he believes community college should be free to anyone who seeks it.
“In just two years schools like this can change lives, change careers, grow our economy, can change our country. And that’s why I think the country should return the favor.” Obama said. “We should have faith in people like you. We should invest in people like you. Our budgets should reflect that we care about you.”
Senator John Thune said the speech was effective at highlighting the importance of higher education, but disagreed with thepresident’s plan to make community college free.
“Obviously some of his proposals we have to evaluate carefully because they all have a price tag associated with them. The free community college proposal that the president made earlier this year costs $60 billion and that’s just the federal part,” Thune said. “There’s also a requirement in there that the state pays for 25 percent of that proposal which obviously would be a big financial cost for South Dakota.”
Thune said the state is always looking for ways to make college education more affordable and accessible to students.
“I think we do a pretty good job here in our state, but there’s always room for improvement and we’re always interested in what the president has to say and what his proposals are,” Thune said. “We just have to evaluate those and figure out how we pay for them and how we fit them into the budgetary realities that we have to deal with.”