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BUFFALO, New York (AFP) – President Barack Obama put the plight of debt-laden students at the center of coming battles with Republicans on Thursday and his own effort to champion the middle class.

Obama, in his shiny armored bus, set off on a two-day tour of gritty upstate New York and Pennsylvania, trumpeting economic themes that helped him win re-election last year.

The president announced what his aides billed as an “ambitious” plan to tackle often astronomical costs for college tuition, which are outpacing many families.

He proposed measuring college performance through a new ratings system that would help prospective students decide which schools provide the best value.

He called on Congress to tie federal student financial aid to those colleges which provide the best bang for buck.

The ratings, which Obama wants to be in place for the 2015 school year, would calculate ratings on criteria including access, affordability of tuition, the amount of loan debt of students and graduation rates and graduate earnings.

Obama said that a higher education remained the “best ticket to upward mobility in America.”

But he warned that soaring cost of college — in some cases up 250 percent for a four-year course over the last three decades — was pricing many families out.

“We’ve got a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt,” Obama said, before an enthusiastic crowd of students at the University of Buffalo.

The speech reunited Obama with one of his most supportive constituencies — students — and the 52-year-old president reminded his audience he only finished paying off his college loans while he was in his 40s.

The U.S. Federal Reserve has estimated that there is nearly one trillion dollars in outstanding college debt in the United States.

In 2011, the average outstanding amount of student loan debt for each graduate was $23,000 dollars.

Obama’s return to his role as champion of the middle classes, a focus-group tested message that worked to great effect last year, comes ahead of looming budget battles with Republicans.

The president and Republicans on Capitol Hill will wage their latest bitter contest over the shape of next year’s budget and a requirement to raise the government’s borrowing limit.

Broadly, Republicans want to maintain steep spending cuts that came into force this year after both sides failed to reach a deficit cutting deal, but to cushion the blow to defense programs.

Obama resists the Republican call for cuts to social programs and wants to bring in new revenue from the wealthiest Americans.

Most of Obama’s economic agenda, including tax hikes, infrastructure spending and job creation programs has repeatedly failed to get through a deadlocked Congress.

A top Republican did not reject Obama’s college plan out of hand, but warned the “devil is in the details.”

“I remain concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage,” said John Kline, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman.

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