Obama took his campaign to get Congress to take action to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where 8,000 people jammed Carmichael Arena to hear him.
"Michelle and I, we've been in your shoes. Like I said, we didn't come from wealthy families," Obama said.
"So when we graduated from college and law school, we had a mountain of debt. When we married, we got poorer together. …
"And we were lucky to land good jobs with a steady income. But we only finished paying off our student loans -- check this out, all right, I'm the president of the United States -- we only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago."
Obama stressed the need for a good education, noting the unemployment rate for those with a college degree is about half the national average of March's 8.2 percent and their incomes are twice that of those with only a high school degree.
"A higher education is the clearest path into the middle class," Obama said.
The president noted the average college student graduates with about $25,000 in loan debt.
"Americans now owe more on their student loans than they do on their credit cards," Obama said. "And living with that kind of debt means that this generation is not getting off to the same start that previous generations -- because you're already loaded up with debt."
Obama said he wants to restructure the student loan program to encourage colleges and universities to keep tuition costs down by steering money to schools that control increases. Congress cut the interest rate on student loans in half five years ago but the cut is to expire July 1, adding an additional $1,000 in debt for 7 million students across the country.
While en route to Boulder. Colo., aboard Air Force One, the president spoke to a group of college journalists on a conference call, telling them that "in America, higher education can't be a luxury."
"It's an economic imperative that every family has got to be able to afford," he said.
"We've already taken some important steps to make college more affordable," Obama told the college reporters. "So, for example, we extended Pell grants to 3 million more students, and we signed a tax credit worth up to $10,000 to help middle-class families cover the cost of tuition."
"And part of the reason I wanted to be on this call is to let you know, very personally, I need your help on this," the president said. "I need you all to tell your readers and your listeners why they've got to speak up, why they've got to speak out. Let Congress know that they need to do the right thing."
A sticking point in preventing the increase is how to pay for it. En route to North Carolina, White House spokesman Jay Carney said closing the loophole in the tax code for S corporations might be the answer.
"We've certainly been in discussions with senators about that," Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One. "That is certainly an option that is a good potential option. It meets the standard that we set that we can't pay for it in a way that would harm students and it would also meet the standard that it wouldn't raise taxes on anybody making under $250,000."