Several major candidates in the Democratic primary have formulated policies that would allow students to attend a public university tuition-free for one or two years. Others said they would make college more affordable through federal loans and tuition tax credits.
With private and public universities enacting double-digit tuition hikes and an economy that has left millions of lower- and middle-class parents jobless, presidential hopefuls such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have promised recently to make a “college education affordable to every American.”
But in debates and speeches, candidates have barely touched on the issue, instead opting to focus on the U.S. troops’ failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the millions of Americans that have been laid off since President George W. Bush assumed office.
Nevertheless, every serious contender has adopted a plan that would increase direct student loans and tuition tax credits, and in some cases, would provide a partially free education through service and grants.
Under Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) “College for Everyone” plan, students will be eligible for a year of free education at public universities if they take college preparatory courses in high school and perform an average of 10 hours of community service a week while attending college.
Former Gen. Wesley Clark would give students whose family income is less than $100,000 two tuition-free years at a public university, which he said would simplify the financial aid process and save the government money.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Dean, the top two vote recipients in the New Hampshire primary, have similar plans that would subsidize a significant part of students’ education if they perform community service and qualify for tuition tax credits.
Despite efforts, the affordability of college does not affect a candidate’s electibility in the same way their stances on major foreign policy issues do, said Christopher Arterton, dean of GW’s Graduate School of Political Management.
“I don’t think higher education is something that’s caught the attention of (voters) in the last 20 years or so,” Arterton said in an interview Tuesday.
If a candidate’s ideas about making college more affordable don’t resonate with voters, they will “likely be ignored” if his policies about more pressing domestic and foreign issues are more appealing, Arterton said.
And while the plans sound good on paper, they are costly programs that will be hard to implement in the face of a $450 billion federal budget deficit, said Jeffrey Selingo, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s senior political editor.
Some of the programs, which would bypass banks and make direct federal loans to students, would also face significant opposition from banking institutions, a powerful lobbying group that will make it “pretty tough” to pass legislation that could hurt their lending abilities, Selingo said.
If a Democrat is elected, his higher education policy might not even appear on the legislation agenda, added Selingo, who noted that about 25 percent of a candidates’ election promises become realities.
The plans could also be significantly altered after being passed into law.
During the 1992 campaign, for instance, then-Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton proposed creating a community service organization, dubbed AmeriCorps, that would subsidize part of its participants’ college tuition. While Clinton’s AmeriCorps bill got signed into law, the program does not provide tuition-free education to its members.
“Like any campaign proposal … there is a high probability that it will look a little bit or a lot different (when they become law) than they do today,” Selingo said.
Candidates’ tuition policies notwithstanding, college students will be the critical “swing voters” in the Democratic primary and general election, according to a survey conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
The survey, which canvassed 1,202 students nationwide in April, found that 85 percent of college students between 18 and 24 years old planned to vote in the November election. The poll had a 2.8 percent margin of error.
Arterton said the candidates’ higher education policies are partially designed to appeal to the “youth vote” and could play a much larger role as the general election nears.