In his weekly radio and Internet address, the president said the country "should be doing everything we can to put higher education within reach for every American -- because at a time when the unemployment rate for Americans with at least a college degree is about half the national average, it's never been more important."
However, he said, it also has never been more expensive, with total student loan debt now outpacing credit card debt.
"And for many working families, the idea of owing that much money means that higher education is simply out of reach for their children," Obama said.
"In America, higher education cannot be a luxury," the president said. "It's an economic imperative that every family must be able to afford."
Obama said he will visit several colleges next week, "talking to students about how we can make higher education more affordable -- and what's at stake right now if Congress doesn't do something about it."
The president said interest rates on education loans for nearly 7.5 million students will double July 1 if Congress does not address the matter.
"That would be a tremendous blow," he said. "And it's completely preventable."
Obama said he has been urging Congress to take steps to prevent the interest rate increase, but Republicans "have voted against new ways to make college more affordable for middle-class families, and voted for huge new tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires -- tax cuts that would have to be paid for by cutting things like education and job-training programs that give students new opportunities to work and succeed."
"We cannot just cut our way to prosperity," the president said. "Making it harder for our young people to afford higher education and earn their degrees is nothing more than cutting our own future off at the knees. Congress needs to keep interest rates on student loans from doubling, and they need to do it now."