Point by Point: Obama and Romney on the Higher Education Crisis

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators displaying their student loan debts in Union Square, New York City in April, 2012

At an April 15, 2012 demonstration put on by Occupy Wall Street, students from prominent colleges like New York University took the street wearing their student loan debts around their necks [1]. This debt protest is one of thousands conducted by students pressing for major changes in American higher education. These students were pressured by colleges and employers into taking out enormous loans to cover their elite educations, but they were always assured that it would pay off in the end, that they would be debt-free within a few years. The Great Recession of 2008 changed all that and became the tipping point for what is now a full-fledged student debt crisis. Today, tens of thousands of students are saddled with upwards of $100k in student loans, which, thanks to unique laws to protect lenders, they can never get out of—even through bankruptcy.

Megan McArdle recently published an alarming article in The Daily Beast entitled “Is College a Lousy Investment?” which suggested that, contrary to the popular idea that all students ought to attend college, many are only “worse off” after their four years [2]. According to the article, college costs are rising at 3 to 4 percentage points above inflation—an unprecedented rate that’s hurting students more than ever before. Due to these increasing costs, so-called “marginal students” who are on the fence between attending and not attending college, would be better off not attending since they are more likely to drop out and get minimal returns from their investment. Yet, there is nothing stopping them from enrolling in college, since, as the author puts it, “Mythomania about college has turned getting a degree into an American neurosis.” Thanks to federal subsidies, almost anyone can take out huge student loans. McArdle writes:

In a normal market, prices would be constrained by the disposable income available to pay them. But we’ve bypassed those constraints by making subsidized student loans widely available. No, not only making them available: telling college students that those loans are “good debt” that will enable them to make much more money later.

Students profiled by The Daily Beast display their student loan debts

However, reforming college costs and lowering student loan debt is only part of the picture. Colleges and universities, both public and private, have faced slowing federal funding in recent years and have thus had to pass on costs to students. Other issues like expanding federal education funding to so-called “Dreamers” and potential cuts in federal funding for research will have a major impact on colleges and universities, both public and private. American higher education is at a critical juncture between two visions of reform: essentially, between expanding and contracting, in terms of both cost and enrollment. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an issue-by-issue analysis of where President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney stand on issues in higher education in the United States:

Courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education [3]

Whether you prefer Romney’s more austere approach of privatizing education or Obama’s more expensive plan to expand educational opportunities to underprivileged demographics, education is truly in trouble and needs to be a major issue in the upcoming election. The College Board recently began a campaign to bring the education crisis to national attention. In June, 2012, it placed 857 empty desks on Washington D.C.’s National Mall, representing the number of students who drop out of school in the United States each hour of every school day. The display is part of the College Board’s “Don’t Forget Ed” campaign, which according to a College Board press release, is designed to make issues in both K-12 and higher education a bigger part of the 2012 presidential election.

The College Board’s “Don’t Forget Ed” June 2012 campaign on the Washington Mall

From The College Board:

“‘Don’t Forget Ed’ recognizes that education is the foundation of our society. If our schools fail, then so will everything else — from our economy to national security,” said College Board President Gaston Caperton. “Yet every four years, the issue of education is shockingly underplayed on the campaign trail. That’s why this year we are encouraging candidates all over the country to tell voters precisely how they would reverse the sharp decline of American education. Parents, teachers, students and administrators have had enough of the silence. This year they are speaking loud and clear, and the College Board is committed to amplifying their voices.”

“We’re not criticizing any candidates and we are not advocating a particular policy. We are mobilizing students and others to create a more visible constituency that wants education to be a prominent issue in the election,” said Peter Kauffmann, vice president of communications at the College Board. A poll commissioned by the College Board in April 2012 found that 67 percent of voters in nine key swing states believe education is an “extremely important” issue in the run-up to the general election. [4]

Most education experts would agree that “No Child Left Behind” was a failed education policy, and both presidential nominees have plans for reforming it. However, in this election more than any other before, it’s not just K-12 education that’s lost its way, it’s also higher education, which at this point clearly cannot reform itself. Whichever candidate wins in November will be left with yet another federal system in fiscal crisis and thousands of indebted students to answer to. In the upcoming presidential debates, watch out for more pressing questions on education than in elections past.


[1] “Can Debt Spark a Revolution?” David Graeber, The Nation
[2] “Is College a Lousy Investment?” Megan McArdle, The Daily Beast
[3] “The 2012 Election: What Academe Needs to Know,” Julia Love, The Chronicle of Higher Education
[4]“Presidential Candidates Urged to Make Education a Priority,” P2012.org

Images via
The Baltimore Sun

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