The amount of student loan debt held by Americans surpassed $1 trillion last year, as the average student debt load surpassed $25,000. The race for the Republican presidential nomination, however, has been largely absent of talk about higher education policy, particularly from front-runner Mitt Romney, who doesn’t list education as one of the topics on his campaign web site’s “Issues” page.
At a town hall meeting in Ohio today, Romney was asked how he planned to help students better afford college. Instead of offering substantive policy solutions aimed at bringing down the cost of college, Romney told students that they should “shop around” for an affordable school or “think about serving the country” in order to get a free education:
ROMNEY: The legislature in my state came together and said, ‘You know what, anyone that’s willing to serve in the National Guard, we’ll provide for tuition and fees for four years of college to make sure you get that start.’ So if you’re willing to serve, then we can be of more help. But my best advice is find a great institution of higher learning, find one that has the right price, and shop around. In America, this idea of competition, it works! [...] I want to make sure that every kid in this country that wants to go to college gets the chance to go to college. If you can’t afford it, scholarships are available, shop around for loans, make sure you go to a place that’s reasonably priced, and if you can, think about serving the country ’cause that’s a way to get all that education for free.
While Romney tells students not to take on too much debt, he supports the expansion of for-profit colleges, which charge exorbitant prices that often leave students buried in debt without the education they need to get a job after their degree is finished (18 state attorneys general are investigating the practices of such institutions). Just last week, Romney announced his opposition to a recently-passed law that takes large banks out of the federal student loan process, saving the government millions of dollars that can be plowed back into student aid.
Serving in the military, getting scholarships, or choosing more affordable schools are all ways to reduce the cost of college tuition, but the government plays a key role (and has a key interest) in providing financial aid and putting in place common sense regulations to ensure that students get a quality education for their money. It’s also worth noting that Romney has never served in the military, and the two universities from which he holds degrees — Brigham Young University and Harvard — are hardly “affordable” for the average college student.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York issued a report today saying student loan delinquencies could be even higher than already expected. According to the report, 14.4 percent of students with outstanding debt had at least one past-due payment, with the late payments totaling $85 billion. But according to researchers, that rate doesn’t take into account federally-guaranteed loans that don’t require immediate payments. Taking those loans into account would bring the delinquency rate to 27 percent.