Affordability of college becomes campaign fodder

Romney said he supports the effort to keep federal student loans at their current rate.

President Barack Obama will try to add the cost of college to the campaign debate this week as he travels to campuses in three swing states calling on Congress to prevent a hike in student-loan interest rates this summer.

But the Republicans’ presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, moved quickly to forestall the issue, indicating that he would rather let Obama claim a victory on student loan rates than risk a political pummeling for his party on the subject.

More than 7 million students who need to take out new loans this year face a doubling in student loan interest rates under the popular Stafford loan program unless Congress votes to keep current rates in place.

Some Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to extend the current low rates because of the cost to taxpayers–roughly $6 billion a year.

With the cost of college a major issue for families, White House aides have figured the issue would be one on which they could showcase what Cecilia Munoz, the director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council, called a “contrast in approaches” between Obama’s policies and those of the congressional Republicans.

Last year, Obama used another pocketbook issue–the extension of a cut in the payroll tax–to politically bludgeon Republicans. GOP lawmakers resisted the tax cut for weeks, saying it would expand the deficit unless paid for with offsetting spending cuts, and Democrats reaped considerable political benefit.

Romney appears to have learned from that experience. At the end of a short news conference in Philadelphia, where he appeared with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential running mate, Romney volunteered that he thought Congress should keep the low rates in place.

“There’s one thing that I wanted to mention,” Romney said. “I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans.

“There was some concern that that would expire halfway through the year, and I support extending the temporary relief on interest rates for students as a result of student loans, obviously, in part because of the extraordinarily poor conditions in the job market.”

Whether congressional Republicans will follow Romney’s lead remains to be seen. In 2007, Congress voted to lower the interest rate on the loans to 3.4 percent for five years, ending June 30.

Some Republicans have objected to another temporary measure to extend the lower rates without cutting spending to pay for them.

“I have serious concerns about any proposal that simply kicks the can down the road and creates more uncertainty in the long run, which is what put us in this situation in the first place,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

But letting the rates jump to 6.8 percent–a move that would add more than $1,000 to the cost of the average loan–would be politically difficult in the middle of an election year. A senior GOP staff member said Republicans were studying ways to extend the program.

In the meantime, Obama plans to begin applying pressure on the issue with a trip to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose students took part in protests over tuition hikes just two months ago. He plans stops in two more swing states, visiting the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Iowa.

Young voters were a key group that helped carry Obama to victory four years ago, and campaign strategists have been eager to rekindle enthusiasm among them.

So in battleground states, his campaign is planning to focus on the issue of college costs. In New Hampshire, for example, Obama campaign volunteers will hold phone banks on college affordability at more than two dozen locations this week, including a voter registration drive at a “Campus Day of Action” on April 28.

In Nevada, the campaign will host a roundtable discussion on college affordability for the state’s Latinos, another key voting group.

The campaign is highlighting policies they say Obama has taken to increase access to higher education, including expanding Pell Grants and capping loan payments to 10 percent of a graduate’s monthly income.

Republicans, for their part, are firing back by focusing on unemployment and underemployment among recent college graduates. An analysis of polling by Resurgent Republic, a Republican group, found that young voters tended to be more negative about the direction of the country than older Americans.

During a visit to Consol Energy in South Park, Pa., Romney pointed to an analysis of government data by The Associated Press showing that 53.6 percent of college graduates with a bachelor’s degree under 25 were unemployed–the highest level in more than a decade.

Romney reminded listeners that Obama had told voters in 2008 that progress could be measured by whether people are able to get good jobs that pay for a mortgage.

“So on his own measure — people getting good jobs that can pay a mortgage — he’s failed,” Romney said. “It’s time to get a president who can succeed.”

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