Presidential hopefuls agree on need to simplify tuition aid

Neither McCain or Obama can afford to ignore the concern about university costs, says Jon Marcus

October 9, 2008

When the presidents of six major US higher education associations sent a letter last month to the presidential candidates, urging expanded financial aid for students, they seemed to be preaching to the choir.

Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Barack Obama both say it should be easier for students and their families to get financial aid and tax credits to help pay for tuition. But while the ends are similar, the means are different.

"To the extent that they agree, it's with the notion that costs are rising and that access and opportunity should be made available within reasonable bounds to all Americans," said Christopher Loss, a professor at Vanderbilt University who specialises in the politics of higher education. "But the actual candidates differ greatly."

Professor Loss said that Mr McCain has historically paid scant attention to education policy. When he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, he had no education platform, and he did not have one during this year's primaries. Mr Obama, on the other hand, immersed himself in education policy as a state senator in Illinois. His first act when he arrived in the US Senate was to seek to raise the maximum amount of the government grant towards university tuition.

But according to Professor Loss, the underlying reality is that US presidents have little influence over higher education policy. Public universities are run by states, and private universities are largely autonomous. "To the extent that there is any education policy for students, you can sum it up in three words: federal financial aid," he said.

Americans are angry about the cost of universities and the complicated process required of them to get government financial aid. And both candidates have scrambled to give the appearance, at least, of addressing the problem.

Mr Obama and Mr McCain both say they would simplify what the Republican Party platform calls the "Byzantine" requirements to which students are subjected when applying for financial aid. Both contend that the complicated forms discourage eligible students - as many as 1.5 million a year, according to the Obama campaign - from getting help to which they are entitled. The Republicans want a presidential commission convened to simplify the process; Mr Obama would let families apply for tuition help by ticking a box on their tax forms instead of filling out the current five-page, 1-question application.

Mr Obama also proposes a $4,000 (£2,300) tax credit for families with children at universities, which would cover about two thirds of the average cost of tuition at a public university. Students receiving the credit would be required to conduct 100 hours a year of public service.

Mr Obama would also have the federal Government pay the full cost of higher education for students who agree to teach in public schools serving high-risk or low-income children.

Professor Loss said that talking about simplifying the financial aid process and offering tax credits has "been the standard response by politicians to combat rising costs since really the Clinton Administration".

"It's seen as a relatively popular and relatively uncontroversial way to provide middle-class Americans with money or tax breaks to pay for college," he said. "The problem with that is it has no impact on those who don't pay taxes, who are too poor economically."

Mr Obama often speaks about the difficulties families face in sending their children to university. His allies, including labour unions, criticise Mr McCain for voting against increasing government tuition grants and restoring cuts in other student aid, votes that came as the war in Iraq was sending the federal budget spiralling upward.

Public concern about the increasing cost of university tuition has also challenged Mr McCain's general opposition to government regulation, which he has said prevents the US "from moving forward with new ideas".

The Republican Party platform seems to contradict his laissez-faire attitude, complaining that higher education "seems immune from market controls and the law of supply and demand". Top Republicans have led the charge for clamping down on universities over such things as how they use their endowment revenue and how they pay top administrators.

But the sudden collapse in the financial system threatens to push higher education off the agenda, Professor Loss said.

"There's a lot of concern about rising tuition, but one of the things that both candidates are going to have to struggle with is the fact that we're faced with an enormous financial crisis that is going to mitigate whatever latitude is available to shift the direction on that."

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