Reading the tea leaves in the election debates

Jobs, the economy and women’s rights have taken centre stage in the run-up to the US presidential election, with higher education barely mentioned in the debates. But the outcome of November’s vote could have a lasting impact on college students and their families.

The starkest difference between the two presidential candidates boils down to the role government can or should play in college financing. Obama wants to ensure the government continues to play a big part, while Romney wants to bring private lenders back into the fold.

But while these basic philosophical differences may appear clear on paper, the details of the two candidates’ approaches offer up a far more complex picture.

Obama, for his part, has made some laudable strides in the past four years, particularly regarding federal aid and student loans. He increased the number of Pell Grant recipients from six to nine million, and ended the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), which lent some federal student loans through private banks.

Now, all federal student loans are managed by the Department of Education, which experts say will save more than $60 billion over the next decade that would have been paid in subsidies to private lending institutions.

“[Obama] has provided more support for low-income students than any other president,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice-president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “It is truly unprecedented.”

Under Romney, private lenders and banks would be reintroduced to the federal student loan market, although he hasn’t laid out how or why he would do this.

He could recreate FFELP (the programme that Obama killed), but it’s not a given that banks would want to get involved again, said Hartle. If they do, Romney supporters say it could provide more private student loan options for college hopefuls whose federal loans are insufficient.

What Romney has emphasised is creating jobs for college graduates, a serious concern for voters. In the second presidential debate, he told a student in the audience: “I’m going to make sure you get a job.”

His campaign has criticised the current financial aid system as “unnecessarily complex”, stating that he will eliminate some programmes, although he hasn’t specified which ones he plans to cut.

Meanwhile, Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan has called for a 20% cut in domestic spending, including education.

More than a million students would lose Pell Grants over the next 10 years, according to an analysis by Education Trust, a national reform group. His plan would also double the interest rate for federally subsidised Stafford Loans and end loan interest subsidies for students still in college.

Obama has accused Romney of being out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans. Romney was widely criticised for telling an audience of students during a campaign stop to “borrow money from your parents”.

But Obama’s policies haven’t stopped the rise in college costs either, the most pressing issue on students’ minds.

Some observers argue that Obama can only do so much, pointing out that the state – not the federal – government is responsible for driving tuition fees and providing operating support for public universities, while the federal government provides help in the form of aid and loans.

Obama also changed the basic goals of the government’s role in college education. Prior to his being elected, the aim was to get students into college.

But Obama said completion was as important as access, and set a goal to raise the nation’s college graduation rate to 60% by 2020, adding at least eight million more graduates.

Romney appears to support this, and experts agree that pairing access with completion is now a permanent part of the higher education landscape.

The Obama administration’s most controversial move was to sharply increase regulations across the higher education sector, particularly to do with for-profit colleges and universities. His administration is attempting to establish laws that would require for-profits to meet certain criteria to remain eligible for federal financial aid.

Romney has accused Obama of waging war against for-profits, and will likely reduce regulations if voted into office. Hartle said that while regulations are important, the Department of Education needs to move away from its ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to regulating institutions.

“It doesn’t work well,” Hartle said. “We think they should look at institutions that are suspect, rather than coming up with all institutions and insisting that all institutions have to comply.”

At the Democratic National Convention in September, Obama gave students two additional promises. He said he would give two million workers the opportunity to gain new skills at their community college that would lead to a job, and that he would work to have colleges and universities cut tuition costs by half over the next decade.

Hartle said Obama’s record can be dissected while Romney remains something of an enigma.

“It’s a little easier where Obama would go because we’ve had four years of experience so you can extrapolate,” he said. “But it’s quite an effort to read the tea leaves about what a Romney administration might bring.