Student Voters Look to Candidates for Answers to Crisis in Student Loans and College Affordability

With problems growing in the student loan industry, spurred both by an ongoing credit crunch with its roots in the subprime mortgage crisis and by congressional legislation that cut subsidies to lenders of federal student loans, the affordability of a higher education has remained at the forefront of young Americans’ minds this election year.

Increases in college tuition continue to outstrip the rate of inflation. Families, hurt by mounting unemployment and high gas and food prices, are applying for federal grants and student loans ( in record numbers.

Lenders, crippled by troubles in the nation’s credit markets and by a lack of subsidies that have made federal college loans largely unprofitable, are dropping out of the federal student loan business and tightening credit criteria on their non-federal private student loans ( or abandoning these credit-based private loans altogether — leaving thousands of families scrambling to find a source for their federal and private student loans.

Students needing private student loans to supplement the federal college loans they have been able to get can’t find co-signers with credit scores high enough to satisfy lenders’ increasingly stringent credit criteria. And parents, who historically have been able to borrow against the value of their house or draw on their investments to provide the additional financing their college children may have needed, have watched their stock values and home equity evaporate in the post-subprime housing and financial breakdown.

Making Their Voice Heard — Finally — at the Polls

Against this backdrop of a rocky student loan landscape and a still-distressed economy, Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s proposals to boost college accessibility may prove to be a deciding factor in swaying the emergent youth vote, those ballots being cast by the normally non-voting 18- to 30-year-olds that have already proven to be a powerful force on the road to this year’s electoral showdown.

“Frustrated by feckless Washington, energized by the unscripted, pundit-baffling freedom of a wide-open race, young people are voting in numbers rarely seen since the general election of 1972 — the first in which the voting age was lowered to 18,” wrote David Von Drehle back in January, in his piece, “The Year of the Youth Vote,” for Time magazine.

More than 6.5 million voters under the age of 30 participated in the 2008 presidential primaries and caucuses, making the age group an important demographic for presidential hopefuls Obama and McCain at a time when national polls show the two candidates are statistically tied or separated by only single digits in the race for the White House.

Both candidates are eyeing the votes of this emerging voting population — “an estimated 50 million Twittering, text messaging, iPod-toting young voters” — in the final stretches of this year’s general election, writes The Nation columnist Andy Kroll.

Candidates Speak to Higher Education Issues Affecting Young Voters

In their quest to woo these young voters, the candidates have promoted education platforms that could give them the edge they need among the country’s 16 million college students and their families.

Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, outlines a host of national education proposals that span early childhood education to college; McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, focuses on supporting local education initiatives and expanding virtual learning opportunities.

Both candidates have taken a stand on three issues in particular aimed at promoting college affordability and accessibility:

Federal Pell Grants. McCain encourages incremental increases in federal Pell Grant awards that would better keep up with the rising cost of a college education. Both he and Obama supported the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, which raised the maximum Pell Grant award from $4,050 to $5,400.

Federal student loans. McCain backs the expansion of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which provides federal subsidies to private lenders that offer government-backed parent and student loans as a third-party provider. Obama wants to eliminate the FFEL program and its subsidies, directing borrowers instead to the government’s Direct Loan Program, in which families take out their federal college loans ( directly from the Department of Education and which he maintains is less costly for taxpayers than the FFEL program.

Public service programs. McCain supports an expansion of the Teach for America program, which places college graduates in low-income school districts across the country, under an accelerated teacher-certification process. Obama has put forth the idea of an American Opportunity Tax Credit, which would give students a $4,000 tax credit toward a college education at a public college or university in exchange for 100 hours of public service. Obama also calls for an expansion of the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps community service programs.

Obama Leading McCain in the Charge to Win Over Youth Vote

With the general election only two months away, the candidates have little time left to get the word out to students that they care about the issues young Americans are facing. And up to this point, Obama has clearly made more of a direct effort than McCain to specifically target college students and other young adults.

Between Feb. 1 and July 31, Obama held 32 campaign events in college towns; McCain held three. And the McCain campaign has yet to publicly announce an official youth outreach or youth vote campaign director. Obama, on the other hand, has hired former Rock the Vote political director Hans Reimer. Polls show Obama leading McCain among young voters by 20 percent.

“Obama has enjoyed impressive support from young people since entering the race, and the chances of his throngs of voters inexplicably switching their allegiance are about as good as McCain creating his own Second Life avatar,” Kroll writes.

While young Republicans have complained that McCain hasn’t done enough to reach out to the voters of Generation Y, the senator’s young supporters haven’t given up hope.

Justin York, a grassroots youth organizer for McCain in Florida and a junior at the University of Central Florida, points out that Ronald Reagan, nearly McCain’s age in 1984, won the majority of youth voters in his re-election bid and that the first President Bush, at the age of 64, also captured the majority of youth voters just four years later.

If McCain “can chip away at Obama’s commanding lead among those 50 million young voters,” Kroll says, “it could mean the difference between the slimmest of victories or a significant loss.”

Author's Bio: 

Jeff Mictabor is an enthusiast on the topic of student loan issues in the news. He has been writing for the past 10 years for a variety of education publications. He now offers his writing services on a freelance basis.