Obama: States prioritize prisons over colleges

President Obama said Tuesday that skyrocketing college tuitions can be blamed on state legislatures who have instead opted to prioritize spending on "less productive" projects — including prisons.

"The main reason that tuition has gone up so much is that state legislatures stopped subsidizing public universities as much as they used to, in part because they started spending money on things like prisons and other activities that I think are less productive," Obama said during a Tumblr town hall on education at the White House.

Obama said universities, in turn, made up for declining state funding "by jacking up their tuition rates."

Education advocacy groups have long noted that states traditionally spend much more on prisoners than students. A 2011 study from the National Education Association noted that California spent $38,000 more per inmate than student, while New York spent $40,000 more for inmates.

The president also said the spiking cost of healthcare drove up tuition prices.

"That the cost of things like healthcare, that a university community with a lot of personnel has to shoulder, those costs have gone up faster than wages and incomes," Obama said. "The combination of those things has made college tuition skyrocket faster than healthcare costs have."

According to the College Board, the price of attending a public four-year university has risen 27 percent over the past five years.

Critics of the administration have argued that rising inflation costs are linked to the increasing availability of low-cost federal student loans. According to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the number of Federal Stafford Loans increased 61.2 percent between the academic year concluding in 2007 and the one ending in 2012.

But the GAO report said the agency was "unable to determine whether or not these increases resulted from the loan limit increases because of the interference of various economic factors occurring around the same time these loan limit increases went into effect."

The president was participating in the Tumblr town hall to rally support for a proposal from Senate Democrats, who are promoting a bill that would allow students to refinance their federal student loans at current market rates.

"The reason that's important is because rates have been low, and typically there's going to be a pretty big spread between the interest rates that a lot of students have on their debt right now versus what they could do if they refinanced, the same way that a lot of people refinanced their mortgages to take advantage of historically low rates," Obama said.

The president encouraged everyone on the blogging platform to find out where their lawmakers "stand on this issue."

"Make sure that you are pushing your senators around this," Obama said.