Neither Obama nor Romney Do Much to Help Students

It seems that this is the week when both candidates turn their attention to the young. Yesterday, Mitt Romney argued that Obama would be terrible for their futures in a second-term, and today, Obama made his pitch for policies to relieve the burden of student loan debt. His main focus was on a measure to extend the current interest rate for federal student loans. At the moment, students pay a 3.4 percent rate on Stafford loans. In the absence of additional action, this will jump to 6.8 percent, and effectively act as a tax hike on young Americans.

The White House is going on hard on this, and has scheduled two other visits to college campuses to press it’s case. Likewise, Mitt Romney believes that the low rates should be extended, and campaign has issued statements to that effect. It should be said that this is an incredibly small-bore measure; the size of student loans has exploded over the last decade, and millions of people are stuck with obligations they can’t afford. What’s more, the cost of college has only gotten more expensive and will continue to do so: over the last three decades, the average tuition at four-year state universities almost quadrupled

Of course, it's worth noting the extent to which, as far as partisan politics goes, there aren't any big proposals for handling the student loan crisis. The simple fact is that neither Obama nor Romney has proposed anything appropriate to the scale of the problem. If there is a difference, it's that one party, the GOP, is committed to gutting the welfare state and its wide array of programs for students and young people. On some level, it doesn’t matter what Romney proposes; if his preferred budget plan were implemented by Congress, it would end most forms of student aid as a matter of course.

One last point: It goes without saying that Obama’s speech was a campaign event as well as an attempt to push a particular policy outcome (there were chants of “four more years”). And if anything stood out in particular, it was his pointed pushback against the notion that he has lived a privileged life:

I didn’t just read about this…Michelle and I, we’ve been in your shoes. Like I said, we didn’t come from wealthy schools. When we graduated from law school, we had a mountain of debt. When we got married, we were poor together…We paid more in student loans than we did on our mortgage for the first eight years.

To a large degree, Romney and Obama embody their respective platforms. The former Massachusetts governor came from a life of incredible wealth and privilege, and wants to defend it with the tools of government. President Obama, by contrast, rose from more modest means, and—at the very least—wants a government that will facilitate mobility for all Americans.

Given this, I won’t be shocked if we hear a lot more about Obama’s struggle with student loans over the next seven months.