A week ago, The New Hampshire’s editorial board wrote about how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were both focusing on the possible raising of student loan interest rates. Since that editorial last Tuesday, the issue has grown into the first real election-year battle between Obama and Romney. Both have claimed they support freezing interest rates, which are set to double for the 2012-13 school year.
It is evident that Obama and Romney are both attempting to secure the support of college students, a demographic that can make or break a candidate’s bid for presidency.
But the problem is, interest rates should be the least of a college student’s worries.
According to the White House, students with federally subsidized loans will pay, on average, $1,000 extra if interest rates jump back to 6.8 percent. That means $1,000 extra total, not per year. Furthermore, student loans do not start to accumulate interest until after students graduate from college.
Now, $1,000 is nothing to scoff at. But in the long run, all that it means is that the average student will pay back a few dollars extra more per month over the life of his or her loan.
No, interest rates are not as big a problem as Obama and Romney have made it out to be. The real problems are much more formidable.
What the president and his Republican challenger should be focused on is the nationwide trend of states cutting support for higher education.
New Hampshire has been the ringleader in that effort, recently slashing state support for UNH in half. What is the GOP-dominated legislature’s next move? They want to cut more, as a bill to eliminate the USNH chancellor’s office has passed through the House and will be voted upon in the Senate this Wednesday.
It is these cuts over the past few years that have forced students to take on extra loans, increasing student debt in New Hampshire and around the nation. According to a recent census by FinAid.org, the average public and private student-loan debt at graduation has risen by 24 percent since 2000.
Meanwhile, the average earnings for someone aged 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree is down 15 percent since 2000. Debt is up, wages are down and college students are stuck in the unfortunate position in the middle.
Neither Obama nor Romney has decried this lack of public support for education. Instead, they simplify the issue, focusing the attention on a hot button issue such as interest rates.
In between appearing on Jimmy Fallon and hosting the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Obama visited colleges around the country last week to talk about the student loan interest rate battle. He slammed Republicans in the House of Representatives for not wanting to freeze the rates. He should have hammered the statehouses for cutting funding to higher ed.
Romney, meanwhile, had some less than useful advice for students at Otterbein University in Ohio on Friday.
“We’ve always encouraged young people: Take a shot, go for it. Take a risk. Get the education. Borrow money if you have to from your parents. Start a business,” Romney said.
The former Massachusetts governor’s statements are typical of someone who does not understand the current struggles of most graduates. It is not a surprise, however, that the affluent Romney does not understand that most do not have the option to borrow money from their parents to start a business.
As the election season moves forward and spring turns to summer, we hope that Obama and Romney continue to champion student rights and efforts. But it is also important that they focus on the most significant problem that students face: the attack on higher education by state governments around the country. That, more than anything else, has plunged students into record levels of debt.