WARRENSBURG — President Barack Obama praised a new Missouri program that accelerates students to low-cost college degrees as a national model as he kicked off a traveling tour Wednesday intended to emphasize his economic initiatives.
Obama spoke to more than 2,000 people at the University of Central Missouri, which is a partner with a Kansas City-area community college and public school district in what's been dubbed the Missouri Innovation Campus.
The initiative allows select students to start earning community college credits in high-tech, high-demand jobs while still in high school, then earn a bachelor's degree after spending just two additional years at the university campus in Warrensburg.
The program also pairs students with business internships, and their education is to be paid for by a mixture of corporate funding and state scholarships, grants and loan-forgiveness programs. The goal is for students to graduate debt-free while entering the workforce sooner than normal.
"That is exactly the kind of innovation we need when it comes to college costs," Obama said, with nearly 100 students standing behind him as a backdrop.
"I want the entire country to notice it, and I want other colleges to take a look at what's being done here," he added.
Obama's speech marked his first appearance in Missouri since May 2012, when he delivered a commencement address for Joplin High School on the one-year anniversary of a deadly tornado.
The Warrensburg audience packed into the university's student recreation center and waited for hours — many of them standing the whole time on a basketball floor — for the president's speech, which started late.
Missouri's top two Democratic elected officials — U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was celebrating her birthday, and Gov. Jay Nixon — were with the president.
Among those in the audience were some of the students participating in the innovation campus and several Republican state lawmakers who have supported it.
Student Kevin Schulmeister said he was attracted to the program because of the potential for an essentially free education. But the 18-year-old recent high school graduate said he now hopes his internship at the Kansas City-based health care technology provider, Cerner Corp., can lead to a career as a systems or network engineer.
"It helps to be out there in the real world, working with real-life scenarios, real-life hardware," Schulmeister said. "You just gain that little bit of extra knowledge of how things work."
The innovation campus is a partnership among the university, Metropolitan Community College, the Lee's Summit School District and several businesses in the Kansas City area.
It began last school year with 19 high school students enrolled in a systems engineering technology program. Seventeen of those students are returning for a second year and 15 additional students will be joining the initiative — five in systems engineering technology and 10 in a new track emphasizing engineering, design and drafting technology, said university spokesman Jeff Murphy said.
Nixon last year announced nearly $9 million of grants for innovation campus programs, including $1.5 million for the one associated with the University of Central Missouri. Its effort has not received federal money.
Missouri Republican Party Chairman Ed Martin said the program "sounds really innovative and interesting," though "that's not something I would say the president could take credit for." Like Republicans nationally, Martin said Obama has failed to follow through on his economic rhetoric.
"He's not focusing on the economy — he's giving a speech," Martin said.
Obama said states need to prioritize funding for higher education and start appropriating money based on how well institutions do, not merely how many students they enroll.
For the first time in a while, Missouri's current budget includes money specifically targeted for colleges and universities that met certain performance goals, such as student graduation rates.
But Nixon also has repeatedly hit universities with funding cuts, including this year, because of concerns about the state's finances.