With just days before the US presidential election, it appears that higher education has joined the list of issues on which the candidates are drifting closer together as they pursue crucial centre-ground votes.
After months of sparse clues, shifting positions and contradictory signals on how to make higher education more affordable, the Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney are now both promising to continue federal support for student financial aid in spite of calls for government austerity.
Education is one area in which “there’s actually some common ground between the two candidates”, said Martin West, a member of the Romney campaign’s Education Policy Advisory Group and an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Both agree that our nation faces major education challenges and that addressing those challenges is essential.”
But his counterpart in the Obama campaign, Jon Schnur, argued that Mr Romney’s policies were not up to the task.
Mr Schnur, who served as an education adviser in Bill Clinton’s government, noted that Mr Romney has called for the restoration of direct subsidies to banks and other private lenders that provide student loans. Mr Obama ended the subsidies in 2010, estimating that the change would save $61 billion (£38 billion) over 10 years, with most of the savings being diverted to the government’s direct-aid Pell Grants for students.
Mr Romney has also called for a 5 per cent across-the-board cut in federal government spending, Mr Schnur said, and has said that he would “refocus” Pell Grants on students who need them most.
Mr Schnur told a conference on education policy under the next president at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based thinktank, that the contrasts were “great”.
“‘Across the board’, I think, means across the board,” he said - including cuts to Pell Grants. He continued: “If you refocus on those who need it most, I don’t know [of any] families that are getting it now [that] don’t need it. The math doesn’t add up.”
Higher education has not had top billing in the presidential race, but it is important to key groups of voters - university students, who helped propel Mr Obama into office, and middle-class parents, who are vital to both contenders’ hopes.
Although the contest has focused almost exclusively on the economy, a study by the Wesleyan Media Project found that education was mentioned in 13 per cent of political advertising in this campaign, up from about 8 per cent in 2008.
Addressing claims that Mr Romney would cut Pell Grants, Dr West said such statements were “patently false” and were based not on his budget plan but rather on one previously put forward by Paul Ryan, Mr Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, who as chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee proposed changes that some analysts said would cut Pell Grants.
But as on other topics, Mr Romney’s position appears to have evolved. In May, he criticised the president for increasing Pell Grants and argued that the number of eligible students should be cut. Later, he said that the programme should be continued. And in the second of three televised debates with Mr Obama, he said he would “keep our Pell Grant programme growing”.
“Education will be a priority of his administration,” Dr West said, “and it will be protected as we make efforts to address the nation’s fiscal challenges.”
Other things to do: Election does not occupy the minds of students
US university students are paying less attention to this year’s presidential election campaigns than their predecessors did to the previous two, according to data collated by Minnesota’s Rasmussen College.
Around 10 per cent of college students have taken no interest whatsoever in this year’s election battle. And 34 per cent said that they had paid “not much attention”, the figures show.
In 2008, the last election year, just 3 per cent said they had taken no interest in the campaign, while in 2004 the figure stood at 4 per cent.
At the other end of the spectrum, the percentage saying they were paying the campaign “a lot of attention” fell from 29 per cent in 2008 to 19 per cent this year, while the proportion of those paying “some attention” fell from 82 to 66 per cent.
Economic issues such as jobs topped the list of significant policy areas for students, with 43 per cent saying they were important. Domestic issues including education and health (35 per cent), social issues such as gay rights and abortion (17 per cent) and foreign policy (3 per cent) were deemed less important.