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Presidential candidates' views on higher education differ greatly

The United States’ national debt is rising by the second. The military is engaged in multiple wars that have been going on for years. The Obama administration has, in the past year, transformed the American health care system.

In a presidential election as hotly contested as the 2012 campaign has proven to be, it is easy for smaller issues like higher education to get lost in the shuffle. But when looking at the records of – and promises made by – rivaling candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the vast differences between the two will no doubt have parents and students picking a side.

Despite frequent labels like “flip-flopper” on issues like abortion and health care, Mitt Romney’s proposed education policy is right in line with his record as governor of Massachusetts, and in turn closely reflects the general talking points surrounding his presidential campaign. His anti-regulation, pro-privatization pleas are staples of his prior work on education, and are the centerpiece of his current education proposals.

During his time as governor, Romney made significant cuts to the education budget. According to The Gloucester Daily Times, during his time as governor he slashed $2.3 million from special education programs and $25 million from school readiness grants, school meals and early literacy programs.

He did, however, establish a program where high school students that finish in the top 25 percent of their graduating class would receive full tuition for any public Massachusetts institutions to which they are admitted. Even with that, on average, education spending was $134 million less in Massachusetts under Romney than previous governor Jane Swift, a fellow Republican.

Romney’s views on general public education reflect his views on higher education – on the September 22, 2011 Republican Primary Presidential Debate, Romney stated that he would take tax dollars from public schools to fund private, for-profit schools at taxpayers’ expense. Immediately when Romney took office as governor back in 2003, he proposed privatizing public state colleges but, according to The Boston Globe, was shot down nearly unanimously by legislators.

Romney’s commitment to privatization and the reduction of the government’s involvement in higher education did not stop with one failed proposal. He pushed raising Massachusetts state tuition by 15 percent, and reduced higher education funding – a decision that led to a 63 percent increase in student fees to offset budget costs, according to The Boston Globe.

As a presidential candidate, Romney has not announced specific policy goals, but his values remain nonetheless. The Ames Tribune stated “Romney said he would support increasing the number of for-profit institutions. He said he believes that schools such as the University of Phoenix help drive down the cost of college and give students lower-cost alternatives to traditional higher education institutions.”

As the conservative in the presidential race, Romney’s positions are hardly shocking or extreme. His central argument goes back to the ever-increasing national debt, blaming President Obama for limiting the job market for college graduates via reckless spending.

Romney’s message asserts that support for higher education needs to be taken out of the federal government and be taken on by private enterprises. His website narrows down his higher education plan to three basic points, one of which is “welcome private sector participation instead of pushing it away.” He cites the national debt and the American tradition of private sector involvement as principal reasons.

These are logical, comprehensible points. Raising funding for education while the government has an astronomical debt to pay off appears unseemly on paper, and Romney’s support for private sector involvement reflects an age-old conservative principle.

President Obama’s counter goes beyond “liberal versus conservative,” however, and he expresses that both through his record as president and his vision for the future.

Certainly going against the core beliefs of Mitt Romney, President Obama nearly doubled funding for Federal Pell Grants, signing into law $36 billion of aid over ten years. He infused $2 million into American community colleges. He capped repayments of federal student loans – an issue Romney is yet to comment on in any sort of detail – at 10 percent of income. While Romney is proposing taking money out of the federal government, Obama has already pumped billions of dollars into higher education.

Obama has all of this funding protected in his 2013 fiscal year budget; specific promises and pre-allocated funds like this separate President Obama and the challenging Romney. Romney is running on three very broad ideas according to his website – “strengthen and simplify the financial aid system,” “replace burdensome regulation with innovation and completion” and the aforementioned “privatization participation” promise.

Romney does not clarify how he plans to restructure the financial aid system, or which regulations he plans to replace. He does not explain how he will infuse private sector participation into an education system that has been principally federally funded since its inception. While he has made his beliefs and ideology very clear, he is yet to lay out the specifics of what he actually plans to do.

According to an August 2012 poll conducted by Education Insider – an organization comprised of the nation’s most notable education policy-makers, thought leaders and association heads – 50 percent of experts felt Obama would work better towards college affordability, while just 25 percent said Mitt Romney would. One could attribute this to the fact that Obama has infused so much into higher education, but Romney has not put out anything specific relating to higher education policy to counter that. He is relying on talking points that are clearly not convincing enough people.

The candidates’ attacks towards one another have been merciless and relentless, reflective of the campaign as a whole. Romney is still receiving flack for his controversial message to students that are struggling financially, in which he asked them to “shop around” and “borrow money from [their] parents.” Obama refuted this claim immediately and heavily, noting that not every student has parents with money to borrow.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has come after Obama less for his policy on higher education and more on how his general performance as president has affected college students and graduates. He repeatedly cites the national debt and the disastrous job market, and attributes those problems to Obama’s policy.

While this can be referred to as simply an ideological battle – liberals versus conservatives – there are notable policies of both candidates that complicate the debate. According to The Daily Beast, Mitt Romney is planning to increase military spending by 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – this will add more than $2 trillion to federal spending over ten years. Although strong defense remains another central, eternal conservative principle, proposing a spending hike is contradictory to Romney’s attacks on Obama.

When talking about Obama’s failures towards higher education, nearly all of Romney’s arguments go back to spending in one form or another. His plans to increase defense spending, however, far exceed what Obama has done and plans to do for education. One can respect Romney’s conservative ideology, but this apparent hypocrisy might raise a few eyebrows.

A critique of Obama’s education record that deserves acknowledgement is the fact that his solutions will have very little long-term effect. If Romney does indeed improve private sector participation, he will change the game, so to speak. The education system will not be as it is today – and liberals and conservatives agree that the system needs changing.

Simple cash influxes may help current students, but an expert at Education Insider warns “[Obama] has yet to come up with a single long-term solution for anything.” Another expert similarly criticized Obama’s record, noting a “lack of results for the billions of dollars of additional spending over past four years.”

Romney and Obama for the most part abide by, respectively, conservative and liberal philosophies. However, strict conservatives should note that Romney’s proposed increase in defense spending dramatically outweighs Obama’s education spending hikes. Just the same, liberals should observe the fact that despite a massive influx of dollars into higher education, Obama’s work has not translated into big results so far.

Yet, if Mitt Romney wants to be taken seriously as a reformer of higher education, he will likely need to provide more than three brief talking points. A history of slashes to elementary and higher education implies he will make similar cuts as president, but these are assumptions one cannot concretely determine. Obama has a plan, and both his supporters and detractors are aware of it.

Whether Romney can rally enough support with so few specifics remains to be seen. For now, voters are either left to wait for Romney to clarify what he plans to do in office, or determine if they like what Obama has done and plans to do for the future of American post-secondary education.

Information from this article was taken by The Ames Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Gloucester Daily Times, The Daily Beast, Education Insider, The Huffington Post, www.mittromney.com, www.barackobama.com, and www.whitehouse.gov.

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