Obama, Romney focus on student debt as campaign issue

President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney battled for the attention of young voters on Monday in hopes of capturing the enthusiasm they displayed four years ago that helped shape the arc of the presidential election.

Both candidates are homing in on concerns about mounting student debt as a key issue that could sway the college vote. Obama is making a full-court press this week to extend low rates on government-subsidized student loans through next year, with stops at universities in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa over the next several days. On Monday, Romney announced that he also supported the measure even though some Republican lawmakers have opposed it — marking one of the first significant policies on which the two can agree.

“I think young voters in this country have to vote for me if they’re really thinking of what’s in the best interest of the country and what’s in their personal best interest,” Romney said at a campaign event outside Philadelphia.

Obama won young voters by a wide margin four years ago, and they provided much of the grass-roots legwork that helped propel him to victory. They were more likely than older voters to attend a campaign event, and nearly one in 10 donated to a presidential candidate, according to Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

“We think that he has the right vision and the right answers that are going appeal to those voters. The topic that we’ve been discussing today is a great example of why,” said James Kvaal, policy director for the Obama campaign.

However, a survey released last week by Georgetown University and the Public Religion Research Institute found that fewer than half of young voters say they are certain to show up at the polls this time. They rank jobs and unemployment as their most critical issue, according to the survey, with the federal deficit and education nearly tied for second place.

The debate over what to do about the nation’s $1 trillion in student loan debt speaks directly to all of those concerns. Many graduates have struggled to find jobs in the tight labor market — and have fallen behind on their college loans in the process. Another study by Pew found that those debts have made it harder for many young people to buy a home and have affected their career choices.

That has prompted rallies at college campuses across the country calling for an extension of low interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans. The rates were reduced to 3.4 percent in 2007 but will double on July 1 for new loans. According to the White House, about 7 million students would be affected, and the increase could cost them as much as $5,000 over the next decade.

Democratic lawmakers have proposed bills in both chambers that would extend the current rates through next year, but some Republicans have balked at the $6 billion price tag. On Monday, Sen. Tom Harkin
(D-Iowa), chairman of the education committee, said he would introduce new legislation on the issue later this week.

Romney’s support for the issue could help push it through the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill. However, the candidate cautioned that the extension should be paid for in a way “that doesn’t harm the job prospects of young Americans.”

Still, the Obama campaign accused Romney of switching positions and supporting cuts to popular Pell Grants. And some Democratic lawmakers remained skeptical of Romney’s intentions.

“If they’re just going to say we’re for it, but not for paying for it any way that can pass and not for not paying for it, then it’s a game,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “But if they’re serious, we want to pass this.”

Harkin said that he opposed cutting other areas of education to pay for the extension but he had not yet identified another source of revenue.

Nevertheless, Romney’s comments fueled hope among consumer activists for the bill’s prospects.

“This should send a clear message to Congress that this is a common sense nonpartisan issue,” said Rich Williams, higher education advocate for U.S. PIRG.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report. Sonmez reported from Pennsylvania.