TAMPA -- Colleges and universities got plenty of attention in the Republican Party’s 2012 platform, even if most of it was negative. But higher education’s big-ticket policy issues, like student debt and regulation of for-profit institutions, have had a low profile here at the GOP’s presidential convention.
Representatives from for-profits took a pass on the convention, with only a smattering of lobbyists and administrators showing up to mingle. The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the industry's primary trade group, had no presence, a spokeswoman confirmed. (That's even though its president, Steve Gunderson, was a longtime Republican Congressman.)
Consumer advocates and for-profit colleges alike are anticipating that a Mitt Romney presidency would be friendlier to the industry, if donations from its advocates are any indication. And relations between the industry and President Obama’s Education Department -- which has ramped up regulation on the sector, despite its protestations -- probably won’t improve in a second term. So some observers say for-profits have little reason to be here, as a visible presence could only hurt them by giving the appearance of coziness with Republicans.
At least one prominent critic of the industry, however, was making the rounds at the convention. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has made legislation to crack down on for-profits’ marketing to recent veterans its top priority for the presidential campaign. The group is also advocating for an end to the “loophole” that exempts Post-9/11 G.I. Bill and other military tuition benefits from a rule that prohibits more than 90 percent of for-profits’ revenue from coming from federal sources.
Tom Tarantino, the group’s chief policy officer and an Iraq War veteran, was here talking to reporters and, with less success, Republican bigwigs. After an on-camera interview with CBS News, Tarantino explained his group’s motivation for trying to take on the for-profits.
Given the country’s bleak budget outlook, Tarantino said in an interview that his members fear possible cuts to the G.I. Bill. And while the GOP platform pledged to make good on government commitments to educational benefits earned by service members, Tarantino said Republicans have been vague about those promises. And both parties may be tempted to cut the G.I. Bill.
“The G.I. Bill is starting to look pretty touchable,” he said. And part of the reason, according to Tarantino, is concerns over all the money going to for-profits. “We’re not getting a return on our investment.”
Like for-profits, protesters of rising student debt and tuition levels have been hard to spot here. All demonstrations, for that matter, have been somewhat muted.
Police have greatly outnumbered protesters, thanks to Tropical Storm Isaac, which delayed the convention and put a damper on many travel plans, as well as the city's get-tough attitude about demonstrations. News reports, which have been disputed, also claimed that federal authorities had warned that anarchist groups might cause mayhem here. Heavily armed police and National Guard troops are everywhere in downtown Tampa, some on horseback or circling in helicopters.
Students are here, however. A visible number are attending the convention or volunteering at it. The news media, which still turned out in force, has interviewed many of them about how the youth vote may go this fall.
The conventional wisdom, backed by some polling, holds that 18- to 29-year-olds are largely apathetic about this election.
“They don’t have the push that they had" in 2008, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, in an interview Wednesday on PBS. “Their expectations were so high.”
A group of students from Saint Leo University and Hillsborough Community College, both located nearby, agreed with that sentiment, for the most part. The students, who were participating in an event held here by the Washington Center, said support for Obama had cooled among their peers. But they agreed that those high expectations were tough for the president to meet.
“He looked so young," said one student, with conspicuous use of the past tense. Romney won’t be an improvement on the youthful looks front, however, they agreed.
Higher education is a hot campaign issue on Saint Leo’s campus, the students said. Paying for college is a growing concern, although less so for the community college students, who praised Hillsborough’s low tuition rates. But the students also worried about possible cuts to federal grant programs.
Without federal loans and grants, Vincent Bernadi said he wouldn’t have been able to attend Saint Leo. And despite stress about paying for college, Bernadi said he and his fellow students don’t doubt the value of college.
“They believe in education,” he said. “The more degrees you have, the more money you’re going to make.”
Two of the Saint Leo students are attending college thanks to the G.I. Bill. One of them, Nicholas Klein, an Army veteran, said the G.I. Bill money had been a big help, especially because his wife racked up $60,000 in student debt while earning her master’s degree in social work. He said he worries about whether some students think through the consequences of taking out student loans. Many think “we can borrow that money and don’t have to worry about it,” he said.
New Voice for Millennials?
Student debt helped lead to the foundation of Generation Opportunity, a nonprofit group that has been active here and plans to be as well at next week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. The group's members, however, have a different take from Occupy protesters: they say unemployment is a bigger problem for young people than student debt is.
“They’re just asking for jobs,” said Paul T. Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, at an event the group held here on Wednesday. He cited polling by the group that found that 84 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they had delayed a major life change or purchase due to the economy, with 32 percent putting off going back to school or getting more job training.
Unemployment is a big talking point for Republicans at the convention.
For example, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican and vice presidential nominee, made the employment woes of young college graduates a money line of his keynote speech here on Wednesday. "College graduates should not have to live out their twenties in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life," he said.
Because their message at times appears to dovetail with that of Republicans, and given Conway's background as a former chief of staff of the Labor Department in the Bush Administration, one investigative journalism organization has accused Generation Opportunity of having a GOP slant.
Conway, however, who is also a former administrator at Regent University, insisted that his group was nonpartisan. He pointed to staff members who have worked in the Obama administration and the group’s ties to Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. More importantly, he said that Generation Opportunity’s message is aimed at both liberal and conservative young people, whom he said leaders from both parties have let down too often.
There is an upside to the recession, he said, at least for college students -- tuition will become a tougher sell. “We actually think it will drive competition and an assessment of tuition fees,” said Conway.
The group was formed only last year, but it plans to keep rolling after the election. That’s because Conway said young people will continue to need a stronger voice in politics even after November.