Turning Blue from College Costs

A partisan pollster said that young voters think Democrats can better confront the college affordability crunch.
November 1, 2006

With state appropriations falling and the price of higher education continuing to rise, Democratic candidates have a golden opportunity to offer solutions that would galvanize young voters, data provided by a Democratic pollster in a conference call on college affordability Tuesday would suggest.

The issue of college affordability is the “No. 1” motivation for getting young people, already likely to lean Democratic, out to vote, said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners and a political strategist for the Democratic Party. Among 650 young people ages 18-30 polled, 40 percent responded that when thinking about college affordability, they would be more likely to choose a Democratic candidate, while 11 percent said they’d vote Republican and 46 percent said their thoughts on the issue would make no difference in their preferences.

Yet, “70 percent of voters said they had not heard enough about college affordability” from politicians, Lake said. She added that while some Democratic candidates have used their plans to control college costs as a way to differentiate themselves from their opponents, “I don’t think it’s been used as much as it could have been.”

Republicans disputed the idea that voters would view higher education affordability as a “Democratic issue.” “I think generally, after you cut through some of the rhetoric that’s out there on these college access issues, and actually look at the record that these two parties have on higher education, it becomes a lot clearer that it’s the Republicans that have been the ones who are taking substantive action -- whether it’s increasing Pell Grants, raising loan limits or reducing loan fees,” said Steve Forde, spokesman for Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Cal.), chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“Republicans have a strong record of helping to provide access to higher education for low-income students in particular by expanding grants and loans,” said Josh Holmes, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “Republicans want to make tuition tax-deductible. We’ve already succeeded in passing a $4,000 tax deduction for middle-class families.”

But Lake speculated that voters who care about college affordability would be more likely to vote Democratic in part because the cost crunch is perceived as a situation in which government intervention is badly needed. Data from the College Board released last week shows that inflation-adjusted state and local appropriations per student at public four-year colleges were at the lowest level in 2004-5 that they’d been since 1993-4.

States that slashed their spending during recessions haven’t increased their expenditures as their economic fortunes have improved, said Luke Swarthout, higher education advocate for the State Public Interest Research Groups, a network of state-based, citizen-funded organizations. Meanwhile, college tuition rates have steadily increased -- the College Board’s new “Trends in College Pricing 2006” says that the 35-percent inflation-adjusted increase in average tuition and fees at four-year public colleges since 2001-2 represents the largest increase over a five-year period in the 30 years tracked in the report.

“There’s nothing that students have approached me about more than affordability of higher education,” Trevor Montgomery, a senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former student body president, said during Tuesday's conference call. “These aren’t just issues that I’m concerned with. They are evident every time students get a bill from a university, whenever they have to take out a loan with an interest rate that they’re not comfortable with.”

Lake said initiatives that young voters are likely to support include caps on student loan payments at 10 percent of their income and a refundable tax credit for interest on their loan payments. “The good thing about this issue is that it is good for young people and also good for their parents,” she said.

“The issue of higher education is an opportunity issue for any politician,” Swarthout added.

Concerns about college affordability may not be prominent in all campaigns, but they have certainly gained attention in many individual races, including the Montana senatorial race, Lake said. In addition, the issue has been important in several state gubernatorial campaigns, in which candidates are advocating initiatives including increased funding for community colleges, increased need-based financial aid and tuition freezes at public universities.


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