In the last week or so, higher education appears to have arrived as a 2008 campaign issue. Democratic candidates are vying to be the boldest defender of student loan borrowers and one in particular -- John Edwards -- has issued proposals that are unusually detailed for this early in a campaign. And in a sign that Edwards's move was noticed, Barack Obama followed Tuesday with a plan of his own.
At the same time, several efforts have recently been announced to assure education generally and higher education in particular a prominent role in campaign discussions. To be sure, higher education has not overtaken the war in Iraq as the issue receiving the most attention. And it's much easier to promise to do something on college costs, for example, than to actually do something. But experts said that the flurry of discussion is a positive sign for academe that its issues can capture public and political attention.
"I think higher education doesn't win elections, but no candidate wants to be accused of ignoring the issue of college access," said Robert Shireman, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. "It is important to have something in your list of policies that is relatively catchy, simple and credible," said Shireman, who was an education policy adviser in the Clinton White House and is not working for any of the 2008 candidates.
If the last few days are any indication, the idea Democratic candidates believe will meet such criteria is overhauling the student loan system, which has been facing an unprecedented scandal in recent weeks over allegations that colleges were steering their students to lenders that favored the institutions or their employees with inducements of various kinds.
On Friday, Edwards -- the former North Carolina senator and vice presidential nominee -- formally proposed that the guaranteed student loan program be abolished and that all students borrow through direct lending  -- in which colleges, not banks, pass loan funds to students. Edwards said that by eliminating subsidies to lenders, $6 billion a year would be saved -- funds he would direct to new grant programs for students. On Tuesday, Obama, the Illinois senator, held a conference call with student journalists to formally offer his pledge to eliminate all lender subsidies  and convert borrowing to direct lending.
In the crowded Democratic field, Edwards and Obama are considered the top challengers to the front-runner, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Direct lending was an educational priority of her husband's administration and she has backed it as well, although thus far in the 2008 campaign, she has not focused on eliminating the guaranteed program but on urging the adoption of a "Student Borrower Bill of Rights,"  which would assure students certain information about loan options, a choice of loan options, and income-based limits on their monthly repayment schedule.
Shireman said that the recent loan scandals have made lending a hot issue -- and that major changes in the program are "much more likely than I would have thought six months ago. Even I am surprised at the level of the scandal."
The Democratic coalescing around the issue of student loans is attracting attention from the lenders as well. Officials at Sallie Mae declined to comment on the proposals. But Henry Howard, CEO of U.S. Education Finance Group, issued a statement denouncing Obama within hours of his plan being released Tuesday. "As a lifelong Democrat, I am disappointed with Senator Obama's proposal to take away Americans' right to choose their own lender, abolish competition, and push everyone into a one-size-fits-all, inefficient, student loan monopoly. Such a proposal would result in increased borrower interest rates and mandate that the government serve as the only preferred lender."
A spokeswoman for Howard elaborated that all of those criticisms applied to the Edwards plan, too.
Where Edwards and Obama differ in emphasis is what to do with the billions they would save by eliminating loan subsidies. Obama's plan calls for using the funds for larger Pell Grants. Edwards wants to create a new "College for Everyone" program, which would provide 2 million students with scholarships to cover one year at a public college if they agree to work part-time in college and to take college preparatory courses in high school. The Edwards plan also calls for simplifying the process of applying for federal aid, new incentives for states to keep public tuitions low, and a new program to support the hiring of more guidance counselors at poor high schools.
The "College for Everyone" idea is being tested with a pilot project Edwards created with philanthropic funds at Greene Central High School, a high school that serves low-income students in a rural part of his home state where the textile and agriculture industries have suffered. Students at the high school receive the same offer Edwards wants to propose nationwide: a year at a public college paid for in return for meeting those basic requirements. Students at the high school are also receiving special counseling, trips to colleges, and detailed explanations of financial aid options (so they can receive aid after their first year).
Thus far, results have been impressive. Two years ago, before the program, about 40 percent of graduating high school seniors went on to college. This year, when high school seniors can see the first cohort already enrolled, 133 of 179 graduating seniors have been accepted for enrollment in the fall.
"The impact has been tremendous in helping our students to see that there are opportunities available for them, and that there are people willing to help them get to college," said Randy Bledsoe, principal of the high school.
The Edwards higher ed platform has a strong populist theme -- and he likes to talk about being the first in his family to attend college (North Carolina State University is his alma mater) and about having worked his way through. Four years ago, he called on colleges to eliminate admissions preferences for alumni children -- calling them "a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy, not 21st century American democracy" -- and early decision programs. A spokeswoman confirmed that he still maintains his opposition to those admissions policies.
Obama has been less detailed than Edwards on higher ed thus far, but numerous reports from campuses suggest high degrees of enthusiasm among students for his campaign. He's also doing well with campaign contributions from professors.  He is also receiving plenty of scrutiny because of his racial background. While Obama has been a strong supporter of affirmative action, in an interview Sunday with ABC's "This Week," he suggested that factors other than race and ethnicity need to go into college admissions policies that favor any groups. He said that white students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds deserve extra consideration. And asked if his daughters will deserve affirmative action when they apply to college, he said that they "should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged."
Quieter on the GOP Side
To date, education has been more prominent in the Democratic than the Republican campaign. Rudy Giuliani's education platform is brief  and doesn't mention higher education, but talks about his work reforming the New York City public schools and favoring "school choice." Mitt Romney,  the former Massachusetts governor, has a series of education statements calling for tougher standards and more accountability, and also calls for increased research support, but his emphasis has been on K-12. John McCain  has said relatively little about higher education, but has called for fiscal restraint and the end of federal earmarks for special projects, many of which end up in higher education.
Several Republican policy experts on higher education said this week that they haven't been consulted by campaigns yet, and expected that there would be more detailed proposals down the road, possibly when the Republican field is smaller.
William D. Hansen, who held senior posts in the Education Departments of the current and former President Bush and who has also headed a group for nonprofit lenders in the guaranteed loan program, has had some discussions with the Romney campaign. Hansen said Tuesday that he does not play any official role in the campaign and that it would be premature to say anything more. Herb Allison, chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, is close to McCain. Federal Election Commission records show that Allison gave Straight Talk America, McCain's political action committee, $5,000 in October 2005 and another $5,000 in May 2006. (A spokesman for TIAA-CREF said that Allison's duties there are full time and that he is not playing any formal role in the McCain campaign.)
While some college officials are trying to influence specific campaigns, others are trying to influence all of the campaigns -- with the idea of making education a more central issue.
One such campaign is called "What's Your Plan?"  and is sponsored by a coalition of chapters of the Public Interest Research Group, the American Federation of Teachers, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, and other groups. While the groups are generally associated with a liberal take on education issues, the group is nonpartisan and aiming its activity -- pressing candidates to answer a series of questions -- on Democrats and Republicans alike. The idea is for students to attend as many campaign events as possible, identifying themselves as part of the "What's Your Plan?" project, and then to ask for specific plans on four issues of concern to young voters: global warming, college affordability, financial security and health care.
"What we want is for all the candidates to talk directly to young people and outline their plans for how they are going to make the dream of a college education more affordable," said Dave Rosenfeld, one of the organizers. "We want to ask the candidates over and over again, at every town hall meeting, pancake breakfast and event. We want the candidates to know that students care about these issues."
Another campaign has deep pockets. Ed in 08  -- sponsored in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- is a new group that will aim to spend $60 million between now and the 2008 election to encourage all candidates to pay more attention to education issues. The group also plans to criticize candidates (as a group) when education is ignored. For example, it issued an analyis Tuesday night noting that education was ignored in the evening's Republican presidential debate -- and the previous debates of Republican and Democratic candidates.
Roy Romer, who has served as governor of Colorado and superintendent of schools in Los Angeles, is leading the effort and has already been meeting with campaign staffs. The emphasis is on elementary and secondary education, but he said that the issues of interest to the group -- such as rigor of courses in schools and finding top teachers -- relate directly to higher education as well.
Romer said that in talking with campaign officials in Republican and Democratic campaigns, he sees a link in their interests in K-12 issues and the costs of college. "Candidates for political office want to address people where they are in the real world. Many people are very concerned when they send their child to college and find them doing remedial work," Romer said. "Now a family is paying a lot of money to send a child to college and they are going to be very concerned if the child is doing catch-up work -- that's the kind of work a candidate senses that people want to address."
It's not surprising to Romer that student loans are emerging as a top issue in the campaign. "It's part of the issue of costs," he said. "Parents and students are concerned about coming out of colleges with unmanageable debt, so there is substantial interest."