In Last Days of Campaign, Obama Touts Higher Ed Plans

Throughout the final campaign stops leading up to Election Day, President Barack Obama has been touting his plans to make college education more affordable for U.S. students. His policy includes a bigger role for the federal government, including increasing funding for Pell grants and Stafford loans, allocating more federal money to public – especially community – colleges and even taking some concrete steps towards curbing the rise of tuition.

Richard Perez-Pena, writing in The New York Times (re-published by CNBC), points out that President Obama feels that the issue both portrays him positively and sets him apart from his opponent Mitt Romney. Even though the second debate had no higher ed-related questions, he brought up the subject on his own while answering a question dealing with gender issues. The answer stirred up some positive buzz in the education blogosphere, yet, while many are support his efforts to broaden access to higher education, they are also wondering if the President has enough power to bring real change.

"I think the president deserves a lot of credit for putting emphasis on things that weren't being talked about much — raising educational attainment, expanding community college, cost containment," said Derek Bok, the former Harvard president who has written extensively on the problems and future of higher education. "But I think the jury's out on whether it's effective."

Some, especially those in the conservative camp, believe that some of the policies favored by the administration will actually contribute to raising the cost of college. In particular, President Obama's support for the Pell Grant program, the funding of which has increased from $14.6 billion to $40 billion over Obama's term, could, via the laws of supply and demand, give colleges an incentive to raise tuition. Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute puts it bluntly: without the existence of federal aid, colleges would not have been able to hike tuition as high as they have.

Mitt Romney has also called the aid expansion unsustainable, and his campaign's education plan says he would "refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most." His stance was widely interpreted as meaning that he would cut the program, primarily by making fewer students eligible — the same approach that his running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, took in his proposed budget.

However, after listening to Romney during the first two presidential debates, some are wondering if he has begun to moderate his position. In particular, many are calling attention to his assertion that his deficit-cutting plans will not include any cuts to education spending or to the Pell Grant program. In his second debate he even praised the grant program he originated during his tenure as the governor of Massachusetts, and added that he was committed to keeping "our Pell Grant program growing."

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