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President Obama promotes free community college tuition at South Dakota visit

WATERTOWN, S.D. -- It's all about family. That's what President Barack Obama emphasized makes America strong when he spoke on Friday during the Lake Area Technical Institute graduation ceremonies at the Civic Arena in Watertown. "We're family," O...

President Barack Obama receives a standing ovation as he walks on to the stage before he would give the Commencement Address during commencement exercises for Lake Area Technical Institute on Friday afternoon in Watertown. Matt Gade/Daily Republic


WATERTOWN, S.D. - It’s all about family.

That’s what President Barack Obama emphasized makes America strong when he spoke on Friday during the Lake Area Technical Institute graduation ceremonies at the Civic Arena in Watertown.

“We’re family,” Obama said. “We’ll do anything to help one another along.”


Despite the graduation ceremonies being delayed by about an hour, Obama was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd in the packed arena receiving a standing ovation. Obama used his commencement address to a crowd of about 4,300 people to not only congratulate the day’s 720 graduates, but to revisit his proposal to make community colleges across the United States free.

“I want to lower the cost of community college in America to zero,” he said. “We could pay for it by closing just one loophole for millionaires and billionaires. Just one.”

He described it as a way to level the playing field for the middle class, so bright minds don’t get “priced out” of higher education. Because families take care of each other, Obama said it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Obama drew the family analogy from a student who described Lake Area Tech as a family. During his address, the president told the stories of several Lake Area Tech graduates, from a single working mother to a teenager turned entrepreneur, citing their stories as further proof of the vital role community colleges play.

“That’s why I came here today, to this little, tiny school in this little, tiny town,” he said. “I didn’t come here to inspire you. I came here because you, the graduates, inspire me.”

Lake Area Technical Institute is one of four technical institutes in South Dakota. It’s a two-year school with 29 programs of study and about 1,900 full-time students. Among the numbers it prides itself on are an 80 percent retention rate, that 83 percent of graduates are employed in a training-related field and 88 percent of graduates remain in South Dakota.

Obama took note of those statistics, adding that the average LATI graduate earns 50 percent more than other new hires in the region.


“Why would I come to a two-year college in the fifth-biggest city in South Dakota?” Obama said, addressing the stories of disbelief he encountered when he requested to speak at LATI’s commencement. “There are few institutions more important to America’s economic future as community colleges, and there are few community colleges better than Lake Area Tech.”

Obama referenced the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which is awarded every two years to “recognize institutions for exceptional student outcomes in four areas: student learning, certificate and degree completion, employment and earnings, and high levels of access and success for minority and low-income students,” according to the organization’s website.

Lake Area has been selected as a finalist with distinction this year for the award for the third time in a row. Obama commended the school making top 10 again this year, which he called the “Oscars of community colleges,” noting that only two community colleges in the country have been recognized every year the prize has been awarded, and one of them is Lake Area Tech.

“This is not an accident,” he said. “It’s the result of a relentless focus of teaching real-world skills that lead directly to a job. This is the kind of place where students are on a first-name basis with their instructors.”

It’s one of the reasons Obama said he chose Lake Area Tech as the locale for his visit to South Dakota, the final state he has visited as president.

“I will say that your tourism secretary sent me a very impressive letter of all the tourist destinations that I still need to see,” he said. “And they look great, but I decided that the first one I need to see is Lake Area Tech.”

The South Dakota stop makes Obama only the fourth president to visit all 50 states while in office. The other presidents were Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Obama’s visit was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd in the deep red or Republican state and its full slate of elected GOP dignitaries, including all three of South Dakota’s congressional delegates -- Sen. John Thune, Sen. Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem  -- as well as two-term GOP Gov. Dennis Daugaard and First Lady Linda Daugaard.


Watertown Mayor Steve Thorson as well as local officials and LATI faculty also were on hand, besides the students and their families and friends.

Daugaard called Obama’s visit an exciting day for South Dakota, and a great honor.

“A few weeks ago, some people tried to make it an issue when South Dakota became the only state Barack Obama hadn’t visited,” he said. “We weren’t worried, we knew he was saving the best for last.”

Though Daugaard’s comment drew chuckles from the audience, he quickly added that he wasn’t joking.

“Lake Area Technical Institute, you are the best, and you make our state very proud,” he said.

Once he took the stage, Obama agreed with Daugaard, smiling as he told the crowd, “I was saving the best for last.”

“To the other 49, I hope you take no offense,” he added, drawing laughter from the crowd.

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