Obama vs. Romney: The Higher Education Debate

By Sara Faradji

Amidst all of the campaign ads, stimulating debates, and motivating party speeches, there is little doubt that you have not heard quite a bit from our two presidential candidates over the past few months. The growing demand for individual specialization in order to compete within the globalized job market, coupled with the fact that college tuition costs have risen between $8,000 and $15,000 on average in the past decade, reveals that the topic of higher education will prove quite important for our nation’s youth and the workforce as a whole. Although Barack Obama and Mitt Romney support some similar measures, there are also noticeable differences in their budget plans for student loans, Pell Grant awards, and other key factors.

Education has been at the forefront of Obama’s campaign. If reelected, he hopes to continue his implementation of many of the same initiatives he has been supporting during his current term. According to Domenico Montanaro at NBC News, Obama has pressed Congress to keep the government-subsidized student-loan interest rate near the current low rate of 3.4 percent. Furthermore, Richard Perez-Pena with The New York Times reports that Obama has continued to increase the amount of financial aid awarded to college students through the Pell Grant program. These grants, which provide up to $5,550 to low- and middle-income students, are now more easily accessible to families through a less complicated federal application process. Perez-Pena indicates that the program “grew from $14.6 billion given to 6 million students in 2008, to nearly $40 billion for almost 10 million students [in 2012].” In addition, Obama has sought to emphasize programs that will prevent recent college graduates from encountering massive debts. Such programs will “limit the size of student loan payments, based on a debtor’s income” and “forgive unpaid loans for some borrowers after 10 or 20 years,” Perez-Pena writes. Finally, Obama emphasizes the idea that more Americans, whether they are young high school graduates or older citizens who never obtained a degree, need to receive a college education in order to become better prepared for the work force or graduate education. In order to fulfill his goal, he is pursuing a $1 billion investment called Race to the Top, which “aims to increase the number of college graduates and contain the cost of tuition by rewarding states that are willing to systematically change their higher education policies,” according to The White House website. It is clear that Obama believes the key to strengthening our nation’s workforce is through greater and more affordable higher education opportunities for all.

With regard to Romney’s plan for higher education, he has indicated that he also wants to maintain the low interest rate on student loans. However, rather than seeking to forgive student loan debt after a period of time, he encourages students to make it their own initiative to seek scholarships and loans in order to avoid accumulating a high amount of debt. Although the budget plan made by his running mate Congressman Paul Ryan would put a cap on Pell Grant spending at the current level of $5,500 maximum for each student requiring financial need, Romney indicated at a Univision forum that he intended for them to “go with the rate of inflation,” reported Domenico Montanaro for NBC News. Furthermore, Carole Feldman writing for the Huffington Post indicates that Romney hopes that more students will soon be able to receive their student loans from private sector lenders, rather than from government-subsidized initiatives alone. One of the main reasons why he supports this is because he believes that the high increase in federal spending toward student loans is causing college tuition rates to rise. Like Obama, Romney expresses in his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness (St. Martin’s Press, 2010) that he hopes to see an increase in the number of college degrees awarded each year, particularly in the fields of engineering, computer science, and information technology. The United States is currently lagging behind other countries such as China, Japan, India, and Taiwan in this respect, and he hopes that America can once again rise to the top through higher education.

It is clear that both Obama and Romney envision a future in which higher education plays a dominant role in preparing all American students for the competitive national and global workforce. Some of their plans to achieve this are similar, including the fact that they both see the value in upholding the Pell Grant program for low- and middle-income families who otherwise could not afford to send their students to college. However, they differ in where a majority of these student loan funds should come from and whether some of these loan debts should be forgiven in the future.

Sara Faradji is a senior majoring in global studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon is home to the Upsilon of Pennsylvania chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.