First Report in a Four Part Presidential Election Series:
Once possessing the second highest rate of college graduates in the world, the United States now ranks 16th. The Center for American Progress’ Economic Snapshot for October 2012 revealed that the unemployment rate for those with a college degree is 4.1 percent, while those with a high school diploma face an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent. In fact, according to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, there will be 1.5 million too few graduates to meet economic demands if the United States cannot produce more college graduates by 2020.
While the return on investment for a college diploma has been questioned, a study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that a college degree is worth it, and “the least educated are the most vulnerable in economic downturns.”
But the findings don’t change the fact that many students face hurdles to get where they need to go. Two thirds of the class of 2011 had college loan debt that averaged $26,600 – up five percent from the previous year. In the face of the upcoming presidential election, students (and potential students) want to know: What will the president do for higher education?
Let’s take a look at the stances and records of President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney:
Higher Education & Post- Secondary Training
President Obama calls higher education “an economic imperative” and “a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.” He has set a goal for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, and challenged American students to commit to “at least one year of higher education or post-secondary training.” He seeks to expand the government’s role in education.With some states facing a skills gap (in which there are businesses seeking workers, but not enough workers with the skills for the job), Obama intends to strengthen community colleges.His goal is to prepare two million workers, including veterans, for jobs in industries like advanced manufacturing and aerospace by working with community colleges.President Obama’s 2013 budget proposal includes the Community College to Career Fund, an $8 billion fund to create partnerships between community colleges and employers, and expand training programs for skilled jobs. Washington spent approximately $18 billion on 47 job training programs in 2009, though a GAO report concluded that “little is known about the effectiveness of most programs.”  In an effort to regulate for-profit colleges (or career training programs), the Obama administration established “gainful employment” standards in order for such institutions to remain eligible for federal aid. 190-plus programs at 93 schools failed to satisfy any of the three criteria, and critics say the standards do not adequately reflect the services provided by these institutions.
Governor Romney acknowledges that students are not accessing higher education at the rate they should, adding that the emphasis has been placed on increasing access to college rather than success in college. He wants to eliminate gainful employment regulations and impose less restrictions on for-profit institutions. Calling President Obama’s policies a “nationalization of the student loan market,” Romney proposes private sector involvement in the realms of financing, providing information, and in the education itself. This would entail giving federal aid to private, for-profit colleges and paying private banks to control part of the student loan program. He also intends to place emphasis on skill attainment rather than time spent in the classroom, foster innovative education models in order to create competition among schools, and repeal regulations that he says create confusion and drive costs higher. Romney notes that “the current emphasis on the standard four-year degree may be misplaced.” Citing a Department of Labor study, a Romney campaign paper states that less than half of the fastest growing professions will require a four-year degree, and instead that certifications, apprenticeships and two-year degrees will likely be appropriate for a wide variety of industries.
Funding, Tuition and Loans
What they say:
In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama outlined his plans to continue reforming education. The President proposes to veer federal dollars away from colleges that don’t keep net tuition down. He intends to challenge states to reform higher education through a $1 billion incentive program, The Race to the Top: College Affordability and Competition. Obama has also suggested working with states to cut tuition inflation in half within 10 years. Finally, he urges Congress to make his American Opportunity Tax Credit permanent; it was to expire at the end of 2010 but was extended through 2012.
Governor Romney believes that “a flood of federal dollars is driving up tuition.” This theory originates from William Bennett, education secretary for the Reagan administration, who noticed that increases in financial aid were not increasing college affordability but may instead pave the way for colleges to hike tuition prices. Therefore, Romney says that the federal government will no longer write “a blank check to universities to reward their tuition increases.”
According to a Romney campaign paper, a Romney presidency would aim to “consolidate duplicative and overly complex programs within the Department of Education,” (specific programs are not named), focus on providing families and students the information they need concerning schools, future earnings, loan repayments, etc., in order to weigh the options available and make the best choice.
Regarding taxes, Romney would move away from Obama’s current American Opportunity Tax Credit and move back to the Hope Tax Credit, which is less expensive for the government and available to a smaller range of students, namely the most needy.
“America needs a new normal,” a campaign paper states, “where college is affordable and paying off debt is achievable.”
What they’ve done:
President Obama almost doubled funding for the Pell Grant, a need-based grant for low-income undergraduate students which does not have to be repaid, from $19 billion in 2009 to a requested $36 billion for 2013. Since the 2008-2009 school year in which Obama took office, “the average public four-year college has increased its tuition list price 26 percent (beyond overall inflation).
Noting that he “cut out the middle man,” Obama stopped subsidies to banks for student loans, meaning that nearly all student loans come straight from Washington. He also implemented an income-based loan repayment program for 1.1 million recent borrowers, which includes debt forgiveness after 25 years and a capped payment at 15 percent of discretionary income. The program will soon change to a 10 percent cap and debt forgiveness after 20 years.
Additionally, President Obama established in 2009 the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides up to $10,000 for four years of college for families earning $180,000 per year or less. The tax credit modified the Hope Tax Credit, which was available to low-income students, in part by making it available to both low- and middle-income students. It is scheduled to expire at the end of the year, though Obama is calling on Congress to make it permanent.
Critics contend that, were it not for the rising federal aid, colleges wouldn’t be able to charge so much for tuition, saying that it’s the influx of federal dollars that actually makes it possible for tuition hikes.
Romney’s John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program awards undergraduate tuition waivers for state universities to the top Massachusetts public high school graduates. The scholarship is a non-need-based, state-supported program that does not cover mandatory fees, which can be even pricier than tuition. According to a Boston Globe article, 75 percent of students turn the awards down.
Additionally, Governor Romney drafted other education reforms, including bonuses for top-performing teachers of up to $15,000.
First Report in a Four Part Presidential Election Series:
 Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), How Many Students Finish Tertiary Education? http://www.oecd.org/education/highereducationandadultlearning/48630696.pdf (2011)
 Christian E. Weller, Center for American Progress: Economic Snapshot for October 2012, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/report/2012/10/24/42741/economic-snapshot-for-october-2012 (Oct 2012)
 McKinsey Global Institute, Help wanted: The future of work in advanced economies,
 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm,
 PBS, More Debt, Fewer Jobs: How the Candidates Plan to Solve Rising Costs of College
 EduWonk.com, Obama Campaign: Community Colleges and American Competitiveness, http://www.eduwonk.com/2012/10/obama-campaign-community-colleges-and-american-competitiveness.html (Oct 2012)
 The White House Office of the Press Secretary, FACT SHEET: A Blueprint to Train Two Million Workers for High-Demand Industries through a Community College to Career Fund, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/02/13/fact-sheet-blueprint-train-two-million-workers-high-demand-industries-th (Feb 2012)
 Bloomberg View, How the Private Sector Can Reduce Unemployment, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-14/how-the-private-sector-can-reduce-unemployment.html (Aug 2012)
 Government Accountability Office (GAO), Multiple Employment and Training Programs, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d1192.pdf (Jan 2011)
 Christian Science Monitor, Why some for-profit colleges could lose eligibility for federal aid, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2012/0627/Why-some-for-profit-colleges-could-lose-eligibility-for-federal-aid (Jun 2012)
 Mitt Romney, A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education,
 Fox Business, Who Gets the ‘A’ in Student Aid? Obama vs. Romney, http://www.foxbusiness.com/personal-finance/2012/10/19/who-gets-in-student-aid-obama-vs-romney/ (Oct 2012)
 The Huffington Post, Obama, Romney Spar Over Private Sector’s Role in Education, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/26/obama-romney-spar-over-p_n_1830895.html (Aug 2012)
 CNN.com, Stop subsidizing soaring college costs
 CNN.com, CNN Fact Check: Obama’s student aid boast on the mark, http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/17/politics/fact-check-student-aid/index.html (Oct 2012)
 NPR, Q&A: What Will Candidates Do On College Costs?,
 The New York Times, Rising College Costs Pose Test for Obama on Education Policies, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/18/us/politics/college-costs-test-obamas-education-policies.html (Oct 2012)
 The Boston Globe, Mass. Program Romney lauded is limited, largely ignored, http://bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2012/10/23/mitt-romney-tuition-free-ride-covers-only-fraction-college-costs-originally-favored-white-suburban-students/5Pvj5dhAiFBRlLZMpfDQ2M/story.html (Oct 2012)
 The Boston Globe, Romney wants teacher merit pay, http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2005/09/22/romney_wants_teacher_merit_pay/ (Sept 2005)