Locals address presidential candidates’ college affordability plans


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University of Iowa junior Catherine Clark is in debt  — $45,000 to $50,000 in student loans to be exact. Unlike Clark, UI sophomore Brian Behrens is scotch free — his parents pay for his education.

Though Clark’s situation may be a bit more representative — the average student-loan debt for the UI’s 2011 graduating class was $25,446, and the national average was slightly less — both she and Behrens are part of a key demographic in the 2012 presidential campaign: college students.

While both presidential candidates have maintained that college affordability is an important issue, President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney differ on whether loans or postgraduation jobs will help students in the long run.

Romney hopes to create a plan that strengthens and simplifies the financial-aid system, as well as strengthening the economy with job creation.

A.J. Spiker, the chairman of the Iowa GOP, pinpointed the biggest difference between the two candidates: jobs after college.

“The students that are getting ready to graduate are moving into a workforce where they will more than likely move [in] with mom and dad with Obama’s economy,” he said.

Behrens agreed with Spiker.

“I think the thing that kids need to know is that college is going to be expensive, and having loans is important,” Behrens said. “But the keystone is having jobs after graduation.”

But when Obama visited the UI on April 26 and spoke to nearly 6,000 members of the university community about college affordability, he stressed that college affordability is a nonpartisan issue, and he plans on continuing to keep college affordable by investing in community colleges and career-training programs, as well as keeping the loan interest rates down.

“Helping more young people afford college should be at the forefront of America’s agenda,” Obama said in his speech in April. “This shouldn’t be a Republican or Democratic issue. This is an American issue.”

Clark said the two candidates need to make sure college is affordable for the middle class, and this is something she believes Obama accomplishes and Romney lacks.

“It’s not feasible for someone in the middle class to have this [many] loans and think you can grow the economy,” she said.

Terry Dahms, the head of the Johnson County Democratic Party, said Romney is “out of touch” when it comes to college affordability.

“A student needs to graduate, and we all know that college is very expensive,” he said, noting that Romney has hardly mentioned anything regarding community-college or technical-school funding.

“If you are going to have a 21st-century workforce that can understand and use the technology being developed, you need education.”

Interest rates on federal student loans were set to double in July from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent had Congress not acted to extend the rate cut for another year, as Obama requested.

Approximately 60 percent of students at the UI graduate with some debt, and while the default rate for students is just under 2 percent, one UI financial-aid official said the number of student loans one should take out can often be understated when choosing an institution.

 “The federal loans are available [to students], but we hope that we can do whatever we can do to minimize borrowing on an annual basis so when they do graduate, it’s manageable debt, and it does not have a negative impact on what job they go into,” said Mark Warner, the director of UI Student Financial Aid.

The UI has also implemented resources locally to provide students with information on student loans and ways to make sure college stays affordable. The Financial Aid Office recently hired two graduate assistants to act as resources for students who have questions regarding aid or money management.

Heather Jarvis, one independent national student-loan expert, said it is important for students to take the affordability of an institution into account when looking at colleges.

“I think that students should weigh cost when looking at their college choices,” she said. “I think it’s all too often that we don’t fully understand how difficult it can be to repay debt over a long period of time.”

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