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Beyond the News

Candidates Battle Over Higher Education

Campaigns highlight differences on financial aid.
University Business, October 2012

With the 2012 election only weeks away, Pres. Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney are furiously campaigning for that segment of undecided voters that could make or break their efforts.

At the top of nearly every list of voter concerns this year, of course, is the economy. And because one of the keys to growing the economy is an educated workforce, voters are anxious to hear where each candidate stands on higher education. For the most part, the discussion centers on two issues—affordability and accountability—and the differences are stark.

On affordability, the choice is between a continuation and strengthening of government-funded assistance programs and a free market approach. For Obama, federal assistance is key to making good on his proposal to increase the number of college graduates in coming years. While college leaders have generally supported the idea, they have also voiced concerns that it is an underfunded mandate. In an August study by The University of Alabama, community college leaders reported that business leaders are relying more than ever on community colleges for workforce training. But the problem, the survey found, was that those same schools need more state and federal support. About 35 percent of community college leaders said that training dollars had been exhausted in their state.

Obama has offered several proposals to help lower-income students attend college. For example, Congress has approved his plan for a four-year, $10,000 college tax credit for families earning up to $180,000, along with increases in Pell grants (to $5,635) and the fixed rate Federal Perkins Loan program.

Romney, on the other hand, calls federal assistance “needlessly complex,” and supports a return to private sector funding. “The federal government should not be in the business of originating student loans,” reads a position statement on the Romney campaign site. “However, it should serve as an insurance guarantor for the private sector as they offer loans to students. Private sector participation in student financing should be welcomed. Any regulation that drives tuition costs higher must be reevaluated to balance its worth against its negative impact on students and their parents.” Some critics of this approach fear this plan could result in a return to conditions that led to the student loan scandal of 2007.

Many other details of the Republican proposals remain unclear however, even at this late date. A budget proposal outlined by Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan would keep the current $5,500 Pell grant ceiling and reduce the number of students eligible for the grants.

When it comes to accountability, the focus has been largely on for-profit institutions, and here the candidates differ once more. After a 2010 GAO report revealed a number of deceptive and sometimes illegal practices around student recruiting and financial aid, the Obama administration pushed for a law that would suspend federal funding from for-profit schools that fail to meet guidelines.

Romney, on the other hand, supports for-profit institutions, saying they spur competition and expand access to education. The candidate has also said he would repeal the funding law.