How Obama's Focus on Higher Education Could Help Him -- and Hurt the GOP -- in 2012

Since his State of the Union address, President Obama has delivered remarks at three community colleges and three public universities. He’s asked the National Governors Association to increase state funding for higher education, proposed federal incentives for colleges to rein in tuition costs, and talked about how job-skills training helps grow the economy.

Those weren’t campaign speeches; they were policy speeches. But Democrats hope there will be a political payoff from Obama’s attention to college access and affordability. The president’s focus on the issue could help him cast himself as the candidate who supports young people’s aspirations — and provide a stark contrast to his Republican rivals.

“Politically, this is a very good issue for him, because it’s a way to appeal to an important constituency” said Trey Grayson, director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. For Republicans, he said, the issue of college affordability is “tricky. There’s a strong libertarian element to the Republican base right now.”

The federal government has little room to maneuver when it comes to bending the college cost curve, experts say, and Obama’s efforts to make college more affordable have been limited in scope. But even just acknowledging the problem helps him show young voters he’s tuned in to their concerns.

“College is the single most important investment you can make in your future. And I’m proud that all of you are making that investment,” Obama told students at the University of Michigan in January. He stressed a fact students and their families know only too well: That investment is becoming more and more expensive.

“Student-loan debt has now surpassed credit-card debt for the first time ever,” Obama said. “Think about that. That’s inexcusable. In the coming decade, 60 percent of new jobs will require more than a high school diploma.”

Adjusted for inflation, tuition and fees at public, four-year colleges went up 72 percent over the past decade, according to the nonprofit College Board. Community-college tuition and fees went up by 45 percent. At private, nonprofit four-year colleges, tuition and fees went up by 29 percent.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York calculates that the outstanding student-loan balance now stands about $870 billion, with about two-thirds of that debt held by people under age 40. The class of 2011 — among them the eager young freshmen who voted for Obama in 2008 — were the most indebted graduating class in history.

“College affordability has always been one of the top two issues in all the polls that we’ve done over the past several years,” said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote. Young Occupy Wall Street protesters have spoken out on the topic as well.

There’s a reason why supporting higher education has long been a bipartisan platitude. Not only do well-educated citizens fare better economically, experts say, but educational achievement is an aspirational goal for almost every young people and their parents.

Yet the leading Republican presidential candidates — when they’ve talked about higher education at all — have either questioned its value or indicated that college costs aren’t the federal government’s problem.

Rick Santorum made headlines when he called the president “a snob” for promoting college education. And at a town hall meeting on March 5, Mitt Romney didn’t pull punches when a high school student asked him how a Romney administration would address rising tuition.

“It would be popular for me to stand up and say, ‘I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college,’ but I’m not going to promise that,” Romney said, according to The New York Times blog The Loyal Opposition.

“Don’t just go to 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 expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on,” Romney said, according to The Times, receiving applause from the crowd.

Romney’s fiscally conservative comments make perfect sense in the context of the Republican primary — even when it comes to rallying young voters. Among young GOP primary and caucus voters, Romney, Santorum, and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are running neck-and-neck, said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

However, “young Republicans aren’t particularly numerous,” Levine said, adding that they “just are, at the moment, a Democratic constituency.”

The poor job market and lackluster economy have shaken young voters’ confidence in Obama, and could give the Republican Party an opportunity to make inroads, said Alyssa Farah, communications director for the College Republican National Committee. “We think we really have a selling point there for young people,” Farah said.

Skyrocketing tuition, she said, is a big part of that economic anxiety. “We would encourage the Republican candidates to address this issue harder,” Farah said.

For both Obama and his rivals, a strong focus on higher-education costs carries risks. Ultimately, experts say, the federal government has little room to maneuver when it comes to reducing the cost of college.

The Obama campaign website highlights legislation that doubles funding for Pell grants, caps annual student-loan repayment for some borrowers, and provides tax credits for tuition expenses. But while those steps helped some students, experts say that the Obama administration hasn’t addressed the structural forces driving up higher-education costs.

“The thing that’s really happening is that states have reduced their per-student funds in very real terms,” said Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, a private foundation that supports education research. State governments have cut funding to public colleges and universities by about 25 percent per student over the past decade, he said. In the fall of 2009, almost 80 percent of undergraduates were enrolled in either a two- or four-year public college, according to the College Board.

Federal student aid is a lifeline for needy students. But experts say that expanding federal aid can actually make it easier for state governments to cut higher education funding. States know that, when public institutions raise tuition, the federal government will be there to help cushion the blow to needy students.

McPherson said rising tuition costs hit middle- and upper-middle-class students hardest: Students too well-off to qualify for grants but not wealthy enough to pay upfront have to take on debt. The same pattern holds at private universities, where the push to provide more need-based financial aid has meant higher prices for others.

What’s needed, experts say, is a rethinking of how higher education is delivered — more online learning, say, or a larger role for community colleges. Obama has proposed a competition, similar to the Race to the Top program, that would reward states able to bring down the cost of higher education. That sort of federal incentive could help leverage change at the state level, said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation. Either way, lowering college costs is a knotty problem that states and individual institutions are perhaps best suited to take on.

The eventual Republican presidential nominee will probably take a more moderate line on higher education, analysts say. On its website, the Romney campaign has already posted a recalibrated message: “Post-secondary education cannot become a luxury for the few; instead, all students should have the opportunity to attend a college that best suits their needs.” It’s a line that could have been plucked straight from Obama’s State of the Union address.

That plays directly into the political reality that almost every parent wants his or her child to attend college. A 2011 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 94 percent of parents have that goal for their children.

“There are plenty of people who think other people’s kids shouldn’t go to college. There’s nobody who thinks their kids shouldn’t go to college,” McPherson said.