Last night before the first presidential debate, MTV asked students at the University of Denver, where the debate was held, what their top questions for the candidates would be. One recent graduate of the university, Jackelyn Nguyen, focused on student loans. She said, “I was able to go to college through scholarships, but I know a lot of my friends had to go through student loans and it’s getting kind of ridiculous for them and it’s hard. It’s a big burden and I’d like to know what’s going to happen with that.”
Student loans for college have been a contentious subject throughout this electoral season, and not just at the presidential level. Part of this is due to the decisive influence of younger voters in the 2008 presidential election. Candidates at all levels are fighting for the larger slice of that voter pie, and college loans are a primary issue for many voters. But a candidate’s position on student loans has also become a litmus test, representing to many people a snapshot of the candidate’s beliefs in the arena of economic philosophy, understanding of the everyday lives of most Americans, and vision of America’s future.
Student Loan Policy as Indicator of Economic Philosophy
Missouri congressman Todd Akin (R) — already under fire for his “legitimate rape” comments–answered a question about student loans during an April 2012 college student forum by saying “America has got the equivalent of the stage three cancer of socialism because the federal government is tampering in all kinds of stuff it has no business tampering in.” Akin places federal financial aid and college loans in the same category as health care reform and other issues that Republicans believe have become too dominated by federal control. In 2009 he voted against the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act and has always been opposed to federal loans for higher education.
By contrast, Akin’s Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill has used the footage of Akin’s comments in a new campaign commercial starring and aimed at college students, whose votes might be decisive in that increasingly nasty race. In the commercial, one student says, “Loans like that make all the difference for students like me,” while another states, “Missouri students deserve better.” McCaskell believes that in order for the economy to recover and prosper, higher education must be subsidized with direct student loans from the federal government, rather than through private banks funded by federal money, and expanded Pell grants.
Both candidates show their economic philosophies in their approach to student loans. Akin is towing the Republican line by supporting privatization and limited roles for government in higher education, while McCaskill believes that economic equality and opportunity for poor and middle income students can only grow from federal support.
Student Loan Policy Shows Understanding of American Life
In the presidential race, student loan policy has also become an indicator of how each candidate understands the everyday lives of Americans. In a now infamous comment at Otterbein University, Mitt Romney told students that in America, ”We’ve always encouraged young people: Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”
This statement has come back to haunt Romney, as students, families, and political opponents have criticized it for being “out of touch” with the economic realities of most American families. As Annie-Rose Strasser argued on ThinkProgress.com, “most students don’t have parents with $20,000 in disposable capital sitting around to give to their kids to start a business.” Romney’s position was not helped by his wife Anne Romney’s explanation that like most Americans, they had financial difficulties during college, too, which caused them to “sell stock to live on during college.”
Romney is not alone in this understanding of the financial situation of many Americans. One man I know recently told me that while riding the commuter train, he and another passenger began to discuss student loans and he mentioned his loans. The woman replied, “But didn’t your parents pay for college?” The man snorted, looked away and said, “My father and grandfather were butchers. They didn’t HAVE money to pay for college!”
In many ways, this exchange about student loans echoes the gap in knowledge about the current economic realities of the average American’s life exhibited by both Romneys, again making the candidate’s position on student loans revealing.
Barack Obama reveals a different understanding. At Iowa’s Capital University in August, he said, “I want to make sure everybody understands not everybody has parents who have the money to lend.” Shortly after the speech, he introduced the “Pay as You Earn” plan for federal student loan repayment, which is recognition of the current economic situation. In the plan, loan payments are capped at 10% of a students’ discretionary income, and also takes into account the student’s cost of living, including variables based on location. In some areas of the country, costs of living are much higher, and the plan takes that into account. His plan is contextualized to the actual economic situation of American students, and because of this argues for a larger role for government in the area of student loans, which many Americans oppose.
Student Loan Policy as a Vision of America’s Future
Finally, coalesce into each candidate’s vision of what America’s future looks should look like. For example, Barack Obama supports the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bi-partisan policy created by both Republicans and Democrats allowing the children of illegal immigrants, usually brought to the United States through no control of their own or born here, to continue their educations through access to student loans (though they may not receive Pell Grants until they are citizens.) He argues that the United States need to invest in the potential pool of innovators that these young people represent, rather than see a “brain drain” as they are expelled from the nation through deportation. His support for the DREAM Act is rooted in an optimistic vision of potential growth for the United States. It is also, therefore, fully representative of his view that the federal government will play a decisive role in shaping the contours of the American future, which he envisions as diverse and dynamic.
Mitt Romney’s position on the DREAM Act has been difficult to pin down. He has wavered in his response to questions about illegal immigration and the DREAM Act, at times saying that he will immediately suspend parts of it, such as Deferred Action (link), effectively re-starting the deportation of immigrant children. He also told Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language TV station, that
“I’m not in favor of a deportation — mass deportation — effort, rounding up 12 million people and kicking them out of the country. I believe people make their own choices as to whether they want to go home, and that’s what I mean by self-deportation.”
It’s therefore difficult to gauge how Romney’s positions on student loans fits into his larger vision of the American future. But all in all, it’s probably safe to say that it hinges on lower taxation and privatization to boost the national economy and secure prosperity for the coming generations. This means that federal student loans would probably not be offered under a Romney presidency.
Some of this was evident in last night’s first presidential debate, but I have no doubt that student loans and education reform will surface again, even though the next debate will focus on foreign policy. For now, though, I think it’s clear that on every level of American politics right now, a candidate’s position on education, and student loans in particular, does fall along party lines and echoes their larger economic philosophies — which makes it an excellent litmus test to find out where the candidates stand.