Financial Aid Administrators: Presidential Debates Lack Specifics
The presidential candidates’ stances on student financial aid have become increasingly similar this fall and some campus aid administrators feel the debates between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney lacked specific, coherent long-term policies for federal student aid.
For example, neither candidate has told voters how he might keep federal loan interest rates low beyond 2013. Both advocated Congress this summer to pass a stopgap measure to halt an interest rate hike that would have increased the interest rate to 6.8 percent for the millions of Subsidized Stafford student loan borrowers.
To be fair, the debate is not an ideal forum to detail specific policy recommendations. Obama used the debates to highlight his support for student aid funding during his first term while Romney seemed to distance himself from student aid policies he outlined earlier in his campaign.
Financial aid experts said a brief student aid discussion during the Oct. 17 presidential debate surprised many observers, as Romney voiced support for maintaining and expanding Pell Grants, but his education plan suggests limiting Pell eligibility to reduce costs and place the program on more secure financial footing. Romney also supported the budget proposed by his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), which proposes cuts for Pell Grant funding.
“The debate left me with more questions than answers,” said Chuck Knepfle, director of financial aid at Clemson University and chairman of NASFAA’s Task Force on Student Loan Indebtedness. “I think supporting Pell Grants is easy, since it’s the cornerstone issue during most national elections. But I also think we need more answers when it comes to specific student aid policies.”
Pell Grant spending has more than doubled from $15.4 billion in the 2007-08 award year to $34.8 billion in the 2010-11 award year. Obama frequently highlights the growth in student aid spending during his time in office, even though the spending increases may have been due in large part to factors outside his influence, including a dramatic increase in the number of students receiving Pell Grants – from 6.1 million students in 2008 to 9.6 million in 2012. In addition, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA), passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, expanded program eligibility, contributing to the increases in Pell eligible students.
However, Obama continues to be a vocal advocate for student aid spending. His most recent budget proposal includes Pell funding increases.
Romney, during an April 27 speech at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, said college students should “borrow money if you have to from your parents” – a remark that drew skepticism from financial aid administrators who said that option isn’t feasible for most students. It is also a position that he distanced himself from during the debates.
Despite this vocal support for Pell during the debates, Romney has said he would “refocus” Pell dollars with an aim toward awarding federal funds to students who need Pell Grants the most. Many policy experts interpreted this as a proposal to restrict Pell eligibility while maintaining or possibly increasing the maximum grant.
Mark Bandre, vice president of enrollment management and student development at Baker University and a former member of NASFAA’s Federal Issues Committee, said student loan issues have taken a sizeable role in the first two presidential debates because incoming college students, current students, and college graduates are worried about access to federal aid and repayment options.
“I think there’s a lot of concern out there about the future of our country and making sure there’s access to education,” he said. “I hope that if Romney were elected, he would find a way to keep student aid intact.”
Romney, in his official education policy paper released this year, said "flooding colleges with federal dollars only serves to drive tuition higher," and criticized the “entitlement mentality” that has led to Pell Grant increases.
No matter who wins the election, financial aid administrators said the president’s plans for Pell Grants and federal loan interest rates will depend on Congress’s willingness to cooperate in 2013 and beyond, especially if automatic federal spending cuts – known as sequestration – are made next year.
“The president is under the realization that he can have all the plans he wants, but with Congressional opposition, he will meet roadblocks. Just because they want to get it done, that may not be realistic,” Bandre said.
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