Tuition fees on front line of election campaigns

October 20, 2006

Higher education is at the fore in the races for US Congress, reports Jon Marcus

The cost of higher education has become a major issue in next month's US congressional elections, with the Democrats blaming the Republicans for cutting federal financial aid and allowing interest rates on tuition loans to rise.

The Democrats have promised to restore government grants for tuition fees, to cut interest on student loans and to allow more tax deductions for families of university students. The debate on these matters is of particular interest to the all-important middle-income voters during a crucial race in which the Democrats hope to retake control of Congress.

In speeches nationwide by ten congressional Democratic leaders, the party promised to raise the maximum individual government tuition grant by 25 per cent, to $5,100 (£2,750), while halving interest rates on student loans.

The Democrats said that the rate reduction would save the average borrower $5,600 in interest payments.

Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, told students at Georgetown University in Washington DC: "Your future should be driven by your dreams, not weighed down by your debt. Your education is not only important to your self-fulfilment - it is important and essential to the competitiveness of our country."

Ms Pelosi criticised Republicans for cutting student-aid programmes by $12 billion and raising interest rates on student loans. "The Republicans are going in the wrong direction," she said. "Nothing brings more money to the Treasury than investing in our children's education and making college more affordable."

The congresswoman said the Democrats would also work to increase the number of university graduates in science, mathematics and engineering by 100,000 over the next four years and to increase government spending on stem-cell research.

Republicans said that federal financial aid to students was at nearly unprecedented levels, and that the real problem was the high tuition fees charged by universities.

Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee, said: "We must get serious about dealing with the cost of a college education."

He said that Republicans were working on resolving the issue by requiring universities to disclose their costs, by letting families see how spikes in those costs compare with other financial factors - and by theoretically embarrassing universities into moderating tuition fee rises by requiring them to disclose rates of increase over a period of time.

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