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November 05, 2012 2:53 PM “80 Percent” Agreement: Higher Education and the Presidential Election

By Daniel Luzer

Higher education isn’t a major issue for voters in this presidential election. This one, in fact, is all about the economy. About 80 percent of U.S. voters rate the economy as “very important.” Education is a a lot less important to voters. This perhaps makes sense, not because education isn’t important, but because the differences between the two presidential candidates are pretty minor.

There are real differences, however, between the policies proposed by Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. Libby Nelson at Inside Higher Ed helpfully broke it all down:

The two candidates’ agendas show divergent paths on higher education, as in much else, and colleges and their advocates can find positions to like (and to fear) from each. A second Obama term seems likely to bring greater scrutiny and regulation to all aspects of higher education, as the administration has pursued for the past four years. But the president is equally likely to continue his strong support for federal financial aid programs and his emphasis on college access and completion for low-income students, at least within the constraints of tight federal budgets.
Romney… has said he would undo some of the changes Obama has made over the past few years and roll back regulations that many colleges and universities detest. But higher education as a whole seems likely to be a lower priority over all for his administration, and any large budget cuts — such as those Romney has said he will pursue — are more likely than not to hurt programs important to higher education.

More specifically Obama has promised to make funding Pell Grants a top priority for his administration. Romney has promised to ”keep our Pell Grant program growing”, though his commitment to that is a little unclear.

Obama has indicated some support for policies to reduce college students’ debt burdens (or monthly payments). Romney has indicated no such support. In addition, the Obama administration, with support from some Democrats in Congress, has aimed to curtail some activities of for-profit colleges. Romney, according to Nelson, would “help get for-profits back to growth through less regulation.”

These differences matter to colleges and college students, particularly in terms of finances and government oversight. But as far as long-term trends or major shifts, this is nothing.

Obama would pretty much keep things as they are, and perhaps expand some of the administration’s current efforts. Romney, it appears, would return us to many Bush-era policies governing American education. But the differences aren’t really that big.

In fact, back in the summer, Romney education adviser, Scott Fleming, said that his boss and the president agreed on about “80 percent” of higher education policy.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer