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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Many young Americans today feel like they've lost or are losing their shot at a college education. It doesn't matter if your parents went to college or if you aspire to be the first in your family to attend college, paying for it now seems out of reach.

As part of our ongoing series Solve This, which examines how the next president will solve big problems, NPR's Claudio Sanchez looks at what President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will do to make college more affordable.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Here's what President Obama has done to help families pay for college. He negotiated a deal with Congress this summer that kept the interest rate on government-backed Stafford Loans from doubling for seven and a half million students. Mr. Obama's income-based repayment plan will eventually cap students' loan payments at 10 percent of discretionary monthly income. And he poured billions of dollars more into federal aid for low-income students.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And I want to make college more affordable for every young person who has the initiative and drive to go and make sure they're not burdened by thousands of dollars worth of debt.

(APPLAUSE)

SANCHEZ: What Mr. Obama's policies have had no impact on is the most vexing problem of all: The rise in the cost of college.

SANDY KRESS: Because while he pushes more aid out the door, tuition just goes up and up and up. In fact, some people argue on the right that the federal support actually induces increases in tuition.

SANCHEZ: Sandy Kress is a former education advisor to President George W. Bush. He says college costs have gone up and squeezed the middle-class so much...

KRESS: That whatever advantage Obama might have in this area, I think is mitigated at least, if not nullified.

SANCHEZ: And that, says Kress, could give Mitt Romney's proposals for higher education a boost among voters.

MITT ROMNEY: I'm not going to go out and promise all sorts of free stuff that I know you're going to end up paying for. What I want to do is give you a great job so you'll be able to pay it back yourself.

SANCHEZ: Mr. Romney has no plans to increase federal spending on higher education and was roundly criticized for telling college students at one point to simply borrow more money from their parents. He says he won't cut aid for low-income students. Instead, he will refocus need-based aid, namely Pell Grants, which provide up to $5,550 a year to low-income students.

BOB SHIREMAN: Some people who are getting it now won't get it in the future. That's what refocusing means to me.

SANCHEZ: Bob Shireman helped design many of the Obama administration's higher education policies. He says Romney's goal is to reduce the number of people on Pell Grants by raising the eligibility requirements. Although there's no specific mention of this in Romney's campaign literature, his running mate, Paul Ryan, is calling for a 20 percent reduction in domestic spending, including education.

Shireman says Ryan and Romney would slash the tax benefits middle class families rely on today to pay for college.

SHIREMAN: That points to the American Opportunity Tax Credit that nine million families receive because they're paying tuition.

SANCHEZ: Mr. Romney also wants to reverse the administration's decision to kick private lenders and banks out of the Federal Student Loan Program, or what the Romney campaign calls Obama's nationalization of student loans.

NEIL MCCLUTSKEY: That is just not accurate.

SANCHEZ: Neil McCluskey, of the libertarian CATO Institute, is no fan of the administration's higher education policies. But he says President Obama did not nationalize the student loan program. Under the old policy, the one that Romney wants to restore, McCluskey says banks would issue federally subsidized loans and if a student defaulted...

MCCLUTSKEY: They would get all their money back plus a profit - that was nationalized student lending.

SANCHEZ: McCluskey and Shireman agree. Under both Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, taxpayers are left holding the bag. McCluskey says President Obama is not going to reign in college costs or student aid in a second term. And on that score, even Mitt Romney's proposals are suspect.

MCCLUTSKEY: You know, you got to know which Mitt Romney you're talking to. So all I can say is I just don't really feel secure that if he were elected, he would necessarily act on what sounds like a promise to either freeze or reduce student aid.

SANCHEZ: So the choice between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney boils down to this: Either the government spends more to help families pay for college or the government spends less to save taxpayers money.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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