Higher education seems destined to be the next platform upon which President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney square off, and Obama’s supporters here, sensing a weakness in Romney’s education policy, used the anniversary of the establishment of the Pell Grant to launch an attack on the former Massachusetts governor.
Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord and Penn State professor Charles Dumas joined a former and current student in a press call in which they blasted Romney and the GOP-led Congress for legislative inactivity that will next week lead to the doubling of school loan interest rates. That, along with the Republican plans to kill off the Pell Grant entirely, is enough to draw a stark contrast between Obama and Romney.
“It’s important the public is reminded that we are eight days away from seeing [interest rates] double if Republicans in Congress do nothing. It means the clock is ticking on 394,000 people in Pennsylvania,” McCord said. “The essential program (Pell Grants) is under attack by Romney and his allies in Congress.” McCord said Romney’s track record on schools should give voters pause come November, mentioning that, while governor of Massachusetts, Romney cut $140 million from that state’s education budget while raising the fees on student loans by 60 percent.
“That forced larger size classes, layoffs of teachers, and the second-largest per-pupil [funding cut] in the state,” McCord said. “Romney supports cuts in federal student aid, and he shows no sign of changing. Romney’s comments on the importance of class sizes and affordability show just how out of touch he is with the real worries of the middle class.”
Born out of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Federal Pell Grant — once known as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant — was designed specifically to help needy and low-income students pay for college. Pell Grants are universally accepted by accredited colleges, universities and trade schools, and are considered the basic foundation for any school loan package; the maximum award amount is $5,500, but the overall funding to the Pell Grant program has dwindled in recent years.
Dumas — who is also a candidate for congress — said Obama’s support for higher education also shows that Obama is trying to prop up the economy through American innovation.
“This election is about a choice between two fundamentally different visions for America. Obama understands economic prosperity depends on having the best trained workforce in the world, and Romney’s plan would make it harder for them to go to college,” said Dumas, who also announced the formation of Pennsylvania Educators for Obama. “Mitt Romney’s economic plan is simple: Cut student aid to give massive tax breaks to the wealthy.
“If elected, Romney has vowed to support a budget slashing millions of dollars in Pell Grant funding.”
The idea that supporting higher education today will lead to greater economic gains tomorrow is buoyed by a joint Treasury and Department of Education report, which confirmed that returns on higher education investment have risen in recent years. For example, the average salary of a worker with a bachelor’s degree is 64 percent higher than that of a person holding a high school diploma alone. Tellingly, the report also found that without a degree, children born to parents in the bottom income quintile have a 45 percent chance of remaining there as adults. With a degree, they have less than a 20 percent chance of staying in the bottom quintile of the income distribution.
The report also confirmed that state funding of higher education has declined more than 20 percent over the past two decades, meaning students and parents will have to take out larger loans — which incur the same exorbitant fees Obama is trying cut.
“My hope is people will see through this and tell Congress to stop holding their families hostage,” McCord said. “In the long run, data time and time again shows [affordable higher education] develops jobs.
“We should not be repealing prudent public investment.”