Over the weekend Mitt Romney’s campaign issued press releases, pegged to visits to key swing states, listing the purported failures Obama’s first term. Headlines such as “FOUR YEARS OF BROKEN PROMISES FOR VIRGINIA” and “AMERICAN FAMILIES ARE STRUGGLING IN THE OBAMA ECONOMY” lead to lists of facts about the hardships the country faces, from large numbers of home foreclosures to high gas prices.
One statistic in particular stands out, especially in light of Romney’s effort to woo young voters: “Since President Obama Took Office, The Average Cost Of College Has Increased By 25% At Four-Year Public Schools Across The Country.” This fact, while technically true, is wildly misleading. It doesn’t adjust for inflation. Adjusted for inflation the percentage increase is 21.7 percent. That’s much too high, but is it Obama’s fault?
The president does not control tuition at state institutions. But he has attempted to mitigate rising tuitions through financial aid to needy students. Obama doubled funding for Pell Grants, created a tuition tax credit worth up to $10,000 over four years and capped student loan payments.
The result is that the actual price that students pay for college has barely risen at all. The College Board crunched the numbers and found, “Between 2006-07 and 2011-12, average published tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities increased by about $1,800 in 2011 dollars, an annual rate of growth of 5.1% beyond inflation. The average net tuition and fees in-state students pay after taking grant aid from all sources and federal education tax credits and deductions into consideration increased by about $170 in 2011 dollars, an annual rate of growth of 1.4% beyond inflation.” So this supposed 25 percent increase is really just an increase of $170. That pretty much demolishes Romney’s point.
But no one would argue that Obama’s efforts have eliminated the problem of college affordability altogether. At best, they’ve merely temporarily softened it. So while Romney’s attack on Obama may not be fair, it would still be theoretically possible for him to offer students more in the future.
But Romney has offered no plan of his own for college affordability. As Inside Higher Ed notes, “Education is not even mentioned on his campaign website’s list of ‘issues.’” And he supports Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget that proposes enormous cuts to domestic social spending. This would cut Pell Grants dramatically. On Tuesday Senate Republicans filibustered the Democratic effort, backed by the White House, to pass legislation that would prevent student loan interest rates from doubling.
Romney, the fantastically wealthy son of an auto executive, has evinced a “let them eat cake” attitude towards college affordability. His parables of youthful ambition involve borrowing $20,000 from one’s parents to start a business. Here’s what Romney said about student loans at a town hall in Youngstown, Ohio: “My best advice is find a great institution of higher learning. Find one that has the right price—shop around. In America this idea of competition, it works and don’t just go to the one that has the highest price, go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education and hopefully you’ll find that and don’t take on too much debt and don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.” On Monday in Ohio Romney derided Obama’s efforts to aid college students as “free stuff,” to win young voters. “Romney suggested he would try to lower tuition costs by increasing competition between universities,” TPM reports.
Obama laid out a detailed agenda in January for college affordability. Contrary to Romney’s caricature of Obama as a big government liberal throwing good money after bad, it is Obama, not Romney, who has articulated a reform agenda that would harness the forces of market competition to lower tuition. Obama proposes to “to shift aid away from colleges that fail to keep net tuition down, and toward those colleges and universities that do their fair share to keep tuition affordable, provide good value, and serve needy students well.” He would create a higher education program modeled on Race to the Top that would incentivize improved affordability and outcomes and he would create a college scorecard so that families could see which school offers them the best value.
“Romney has no plan to speak of,” says Kevin Carey, policy director at the nonpartisan think tank Education Sector. “Obama arguably has not done much to tackle the core problem of rising tuition, although the policies announced around this year's State of the Union were a good start. And Obama has done a whole lot to treat the symptoms of the rising tuition problem, by fighting for more funding for Pell grants—and succeeding fantastically, the program has more than doubled in spending under his administration—trying to keep student loan interest rates low and introducing alternative loan payback options.”
The candidates also differ on for profit colleges. The Obama campaign has attempted to crack down on colleges that take government tuition subsidies and offer students poor educations with low graduation rates or degrees that are worthless in the job market. Romney champions the for-profit college industry. Romney recently praised for profit schools such as the University of Phoenix and Full Sail University, drawing criticism from experts who note their expensive tuitions, low rates of financial aid and questionable academic merit.
It’s also worth asking why state university tuitions are rising. In many cases it is because state legislatures, usually Republican state legislatures, are cutting funding for state schools. When Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he cut aid to public universities. The University of Florida recently announced plans to eliminate its computer science department after state aid dropped 30 percent over the last six years. (They have since said they intend to save the department.)
The Romney campaign declined to comment specifically on the tuition issue, simply noting that Obama campaigned against economic stagnation and rising college tuitions and now he is up for re-election having solved neither. “No matter how many lofty campaign speeches President Obama gives, the fact remains that American families are struggling on his watch: to pay their bills, find a job and keep their homes,” said Andrea Saul, Romney campaign spokesperson. “While President Obama all but ignored his record over three and a half years in office, the American people won’t. This November, they will hold him accountable for his broken promises and ineffective leadership.”
Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner sent me this response: “It’s ironic that Mitt Romney would attack the President’s record on making college more affordable when, just yesterday, he equated the President’s support for keeping the interest rate on student loan rates low with giving away ‘free stuff’, has proposed ending the college tax credit, and endorsed the Ryan budget, which would cut Pell Grants and let the student loan interest rate double.”
With Romney speaking Tuesday at Lansing Community College in Michigan the Obama campaign decided to hit Romney for his record on college affordability. They posted a fact sheet comparing his record to Obama’s. Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith issued a statement demanding to know, in light of his past statements and actions, “Why should young Americans trust any support he claims to offer now?” If the Romney campaign is serious about attracting younger voters, they will need to come up with an answer.