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Higher Ed Woes Take Back Seat in Presidential Race

The continuing financial system bailout is undermining prospects that the next administration will tackle one of the nation's biggest education problems — that higher education effectively excludes some 400,000 academically qualified students every year.

Even with affordability issues hitting the middle class, it has not forced an unvarnished debate among the candidates, who experts say have been sidetracked by secondary issues.

Barack Obama
Mark Stahl
Barack Obama

“I think the reason that both candidates are not making fundamental suggestions is that they are not really sure how much it’s going to cost and they are not sure how it is going to run up against other priorities like rescuing the economy short-term,” says Tom Parker, who has been serving as the interim president of the non-partisan Institute of Higher Education Policy. "There is just going to have to be a lot bailouts of the financial system and that’s going to cost a huge amount of money."

IHEP estimates it would require about a billion dollars a year in public funds to help the 400,000 qualified students in question attend four-year colleges.

But even before the current economic woes, the American middle class was increasingly challenged to meet the cost of higher education.

Costs have been rising steadily — roughly twice the rate of inflation — and paying for college now seems a permanent part of the iron cross of American worries, joining concerns about retirement, health care and jobs.

Overall college costs have risen 40 percent in the last five years, and 60 percent of students now graduate with average debt of $19,000.

“This is a stay-awake-at-night issue for American families and there has not been a lot of attention played against it,” said David Rochon, president of Upromise, which since its inception in 2001 has helped nearly nine million members put $400 million into college savings accounts. Upromise was acquired by Sallie Mae in 2006.

In a poll ,two-thirds of Upromise members said they would be swayed by candidates’ education policy, but three-fourths said they did not believe what they were hearing so far.

“I want candidates to know that,” adds Rochon.

Asked which candidate would “do the most” to make a four-year college education affordable for the average family, Sen. Barack Obama, who'll be anointed the Democratic candidate at this week’s party convention in Denver, easily outpolled his rival John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, 31.7 percent to 14.9 percent.

But it remains to be seen how these sentiments will shape actual voting.

Obama’s presidential website has the most detailed policy prescriptions, including a proposal to greatly simplify the application process for Pell Grants and other tax credits by letting families to check a tax form box.

John McCain
Mel Evans
John McCain

That is meant to address the “low take-up rate” of federal government assistance available to families who are put off by the complexity of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) which has 127 questions.

McCain also has spoken in favor of simplifying the loan process getting tax credits, and both candidates have called for better information so parents can become better loan shoppers.

Democratic Swollen Wish List

Such issues are critical because only a tiny fraction of the the nation's 17 million college students come from families that can afford to finance their education without assistance.

Most rely on some form of federal support, which comes in the form of direct and indirect loan programs that guarantee private lenders.

Only 20 percent of Washington’s aid comes in the form of grants for the neediest students.

Whoever assumes the presidency next January will find a very challenging budget environment that will make any increased support for higher education politically difficult, said Travis Reindl, of Making Opportunity Affordable, an education advocacy group.

“There will have to be day of reckoning, ” said Reindl. “There are a lot of mouths at the table to feed here and not a lot of extra scraps to go around.”

Disparity and Financial Literacy

But for all the media attention on the dramatic cost increases at the country’s most elite institutions, higher education is well within reach for most Americans.

More than 80 percent of students attend public schools — 40 percent of these are in community colleges — and nearly half of students pay less than $2,550 annually for in-state tuition and fees, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in November. Three out of five students pay less than $4,750 per year.

What some call undue media attention may help explain why parents regularly overestimate college costs.

Another Upromise poll discovered that parents initially thought annual tuition and fees for a public four-year university were more than four times the actual amount — $25,155 vs. $5,836.

“Both political parties believe, correctly, that the middle class holds the key to the next election … and calibrate their arguments in ways that will appeal to them,” said Terry Hartle, a government relations expert for the American Council on Education.

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