College costs not considered closely in presidential elections

Students and their parents can attest to a painful truth about college costs: They’ve been on a rocket ship rise for years. And there is no end in sight.

Many think college affordability is an issue the candidates for president should address. Yet few candidates have offered plans to make higher education more affordable.

Still, when pollsters ask which issues are most important, education trails hot-button topics like the war in Iraq, health care and the economy. When education is discussed, the focus is usually on K-12 issues like testing and vouchers.

Former South Carolina Gov. Dick Riley thinks there should be more talk about higher education.

“It’s a critical issue,” said Riley, U.S. secretary of education during the Bill Clinton administration. “I think all of the candidates should be discussing it.”

The issue of college costs and what to do about them crept into the presidential campaign recently, when U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., floated the idea of opening a $5,000 account for every baby born in the United States. The account would grow over time and could be tapped to help pay for college.

Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and wife of the former president, immediately was blasted by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a top candidate for the GOP nomination.

Giuliani mocked the idea, and the Clinton campaign quickly said it was merely an idea, not a formal proposal.

Otherwise, only a handful of the presidential candidates have put together proposals to address college costs.

Elliott Bundy, a Giuliani campaign spokesman, said the former mayor did not criticize Clinton’s “baby bond” idea because it is a bad way to pay for college.

“That’s not what his point was,” Bundy said. “He just thought that was bad fiscal policy, period.”

Despite his rebuke of Clinton’s idea, Giuliani has not said what, if anything, he would do to make college more affordable.

While the issue has not been a significant factor in the campaign, students and their parents are troubled by the soaring cost of higher education.

Lauren Johnson, a 20-year-old junior at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., said she has two scholarships, a Pell Grant and a student loan, and she still has a hard time covering all of her costs.

“Each year, tuition goes up,” said Johnson, the daughter of a military family that settled in Columbia, S.C. “We’re scrambling even more to try to figure out how to pay for this.”

Legislation passed by Congress last month and signed by President Bush will boost the maximum Pell Grant award, now $4,310 a year, to $5,400 a year by 2012. It also will reduce interest rates on federally subsidized loans and cut government subsidies to private loan companies. Bush, who wanted to give more needs-based aid instead of cutting interest rates, initially threatened to veto the bill.