In depth: Candidates’ higher education plans overshadowed in campaign

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry have visited universities across America, but concrete details about how the candidates will help students pay for college have been largely ignored in the media and on the campaign trail.

Chris Arterton, dean of GW’s Graduate School of Political Management, said Bush and his Democratic rival have largely neglected to promote their policy for higher education institutions.

“Neither candidate is giving the issue much attention,” Arterton said.

He added that the Massachusetts senator has laid out a more ambitious plan than his incumbent challenger for helping students and parents pay for college.

“Kerry has been more expansive in his promises in this aspect, but given the budget deficit it is doubtful that he could actually accomplish a great deal here if he were elected,” Arterton said.

As part of his education platform, Kerry is planning to provide a college opportunity tax plan, which will give credit to families for up to $4,000. The Democrat also plans to provide a full ride to public college for students who take two years off before enrolling to work full-time in education, homeland security or community service.

To further help college-bound students, Kerry promises to simplify the financial aid application process by creating faster, simpler and shorter applications.

Officials with the Bush camp were quick to point out that Kerry’s education policy would hamper the national budget. Bush promises to implement a $73 billion financial aid assistance program and would not adopt Kerry’s plan to simplify the financial aid application process.

The president is also proposing an increase in yearly federal loan limits from $2,625 to $3,000. According to the Bush-Cheney Web site, “more than 10.3 million students will be able to afford college through President Bush’s plan.”

The Bush platform on college education varies slightly from his campaign promises before the 2000 election. While running against then-Vice President Al Gore, Bush promised $275 million for college tuition tax credits, $1.5 billion for state merit scholarships to college and $1.3 billion for math and science programs for college-bound students. Bush fulfilled part of his 2000 promises by including college tuition tax credits in his 2001 tax cut.

Brian Fitzgerald, staff director of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, an independent committee created by Congress to advise on student aid policy, said a large national deficit might make it difficult to pay for new college education programs.

“I don’t think we have good answers from any of the campaigns on how they are going to pay for their programs,” he said.

While Bush’s higher education agenda focuses on adding money to new programs, Fitzgerald said Kerry’s plans are probably more feasible since they rely on tax incentives and not more spending.

He added that Kerry’s plan to pay for college in exchange for community service may be difficult to pay for, but that there is promise in the senator’s plan to simplify the financial aid process.

“We’ve documented literally hundreds of thousands of qualified high school graduates not showing up to four-year colleges or even two-year colleges due to inadequate financial aid,” said Fitzgerald, who added that most students do not receive money because they are slowed down by a lengthy admissions process.

By reducing the number of questions on financial aid application forms and college application documents, Fitzgerald said students who are eligible for financial aid would get through the process quicker.

-Gabriel Okolski contributed to this report.

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