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.

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