In campaign stops across college campuses, and again in the debate on Tuesday, President Obama has promoted his efforts to make college more affordable. His record, more activist than any recent predecessor's, includes greatly expanding the federal government's role in granting college loans, increasing aid to community colleges, and even taking steps to try to stem soaring tuition.
Though none of the questions in the presidential debate were on college affordability, Mr. Obama pivoted to that topic on his own. In answering a question about gender equity, he said, "We've expanded Pell Grants for millions of people, including millions of young women."
But while many education experts laud his efforts, analysts of varying political stripes have also questioned how much impact some of the president's policies will have, noting that the prices charged by colleges, and student borrowing, continue to climb.
"I think the president deserves a lot of credit for putting emphasis on things that weren't being talked about much — raising educational attainment, expanding community college, cost containment," said Derek Bok, the former Harvard president who has written extensively on the problems and future of higher education. "But I think the jury's out on whether it's effective."
Some conservatives have pushed that critique further, saying that Mr. Obama's policies are too costly, often assist the wrong people and could have the paradoxical effect of driving up college costs. The dispute turns not just on different assessments of how policies play out, but on differing philosophical views about the role of government. During his time in office, Mr. Obama has sharply increased aid to low- and middle-income students, notably through the Pell Grant program, which grew from $14.6 billion given to 6 million students in 2008, to nearly $40 billion for almost 10 million students this year. His administration also made it easier to request aid, shortening the complex federal application and allowing people to transfer their financial information electronically from the Internal Revenue Service database.
"On the area of assisting students to gain a college opportunity, President Obama has exerted the most impressive leadership of any president in my memory," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, an association of college and university presidents.
But conservative critics of the Pell Grant program contend that as government pours more money into higher education — whether in grants or loans — the law of supply and demand dictates that it contributes to price increases.
"Could the colleges charge what they're charging now in the absence of federal aid?" asked Neal McCluskey, an education analyst at the Cato Institute, a conservative policy research group. "The answer is no."
Mitt Romney has also called the aid expansion unsustainable, and his campaign's education plan says he would "refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most." His stance was widely interpreted as meaning that he would cut the program, primarily by making fewer students eligible — the same approach that his running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, took in his proposed budget.
Yet in the presidential debates, Mr. Romney seems to have shifted his position. In the first debate on Oct. 3, he said, "I don't have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college." He went further in the debate Tuesday, promoting a state aid program he created as governor of Massachusetts, saying, "I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing."
College costs have risen dramatically. In the last school year, tuition, fees, room and board averaged $38,589 at private colleges, up almost $15,000 from a decade earlier, according to the College Board. At public four-year colleges, the total bill came to $17,131, up more than $8,000.
But behind the headlines about soaring costs, the reality is more complex and wildly uneven, because a growing number of students receive financial aid, and only relatively high-income families pay those fast-rising sticker prices. Adjusted for inflation, the College Board calculates, the average "net price" changed little over the last decade at private schools, and rose only modestly at public ones.
Defending federal spending, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, said that for more than 30 years, college prices had risen even when federal aid had not, leading him to believe there was "zero correlation." And he noted that the big increases under Mr. Obama had come at a time of declining state support for public colleges.
Conservatives have criticized Mr. Obama's other college affordability programs.