ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand. The presidential debates may be over, but school is still in session. We'll hear what each candidate has planned to help struggling families finance college as part of Day to Day's series on education. That's coming up in a moment.
CHADWICK: First, though, they survive four years and a college thesis. Yet, another challenge looms. Landing that first job in a stinking economy. Many colleges across the country this week held job fairs for their winter graduates.
Ms. COLLEEN CLARKE (Senior, UCLA): My name's Colleen Clarke (ph), and I'm a senior at UCLA, graduating in December. I'm majoring in mass communications with a minor in computing. And right now, I'm kind of looking into sales or marketing, and that's kind of where I'm hoping to go.
As of now I'm just kind of in the, like, process of looking. I graduating a little earlier than I thought, and it is a little daunting because you do hear that people who I know who graduated this past June or May are still looking for jobs, which is scary, so...
I have many school loans. I'm an out-of-state student. So, cost of going here is over $40,000, and because it's a state school, there isn't really financial aid available. So, it's a really big concern for me right now.
Mr. BENJAMIN DELONG (Student, University of Wisconsin): My name is Benjamin Delong (ph), and I attended the University of Wisconsin. I graduate in December, and I would love to have a job secured by January, the job being most likely something with either social work, medical care counseling.
I did take out student loans for all four years that I attended this college. I'm looking at a moderate to significant level of debt, but I feel confident that I will be able to pay it off - with a fortunate event, in my fiancee found a good job, and I intend to do the same as well.
Ms. KARIN WILLIAMS CARTER (Student, Villa Julie College): My name is Karin Williams Carter (ph). I attend Villa Julie College. My major's paralegal studies, so hopefully, in here, there's a law firm where I can work in it. Because I have to pay for school on my own. My parents didn't have the money for it - $35,000, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CARTER: It's a lot. So, I had to use credit cards and had to work full time as a assistant manager - so I'm trying very hard, but it's very hard at times.
BRAND: Hard times indeed. A lot of students are graduating into a weak job market, and their struggle is made worse by the cost of college.
CHADWICK: So, the average debt for a student graduating last year, average debt $22,000. That's up more than 60 percent in the last 15 years. Now, the two men running for president, what are they going to do about this? We checked first with the education advisor to Senator McCain, that's former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift.
BRAND: Let's talk about Pell grants. That is the mainstay for a lot of low income students, and, basically, Pell grants give up to $4,700, and you don't have to pay it back. That amount, though, it only covers about third of the cost of an average university. Would John McCain favor increasing Pell grants?
Former Governor JANE SWIFT (Education Advisor, McCain Presidential Campaign): We are not currently proposing an extension of the Pell grant because we believe that, in general, we need to get federal funding under control and take a one year moratorium on growth and new programs so that we make sure the programs we have already have a maximum efficiency.
BRAND: What about tuition? This is something keeps marching ever higher, and $50,000 a year, including room and board, is not unheard of now at some of the more expensive universities. Can government actually do anything about rising tuition costs?
Former Gov. SWIFT: Well, I think that we need to be very careful about injecting ourselves directly into setting prices for private institutions. Having said that, the thing that government can do is to take all that information that they collect every single year and to make it readily available to parents and to students. So, a student who chooses to attend an institution that cost $50,000 a year can clearly see what types of results that institution is producing for their graduates so that we can have more informed consumers.
BRAND: So, if I'm reading this correctly, Senator McCain would not support any large increases in spending but would favor simplifying the tax code, giving more information to parents and students so they make more informed decisions. Things along those lines rather than spending government money.
Former Gov. SWIFT: I think that Senator McCain is being completely honest and giving straight talk to the American people, that we are hugely in debt, and, in fact, it's going to be kids who are entering college who are going to shoulder most of that debt and the diminished economic opportunity that results from it.
And so it's actually in their interest that we get federal spending under control, or they're going to be the ones who pay for it through reduced economic opportunity or higher taxes and less services in the future. So, Senator McCain has been very, very clear that he thinks there needs to be at least a one year moratorium on increased spending, with very few exceptions so that we can come to grips with the national crisis, really, of increasing debt.
BRAND: What do you think of Senator Obama's plan to provide students with up to $ 4,000 a year in tax credits in return for 100 hours of community service?
Former Gov. SWIFT: I'm skeptical that many of those things will be able to move forward, but I also think that you look at the difference in approach. Senator McCain wants to take the money that's being spent, the tax credits that are already being offered, simplify them, make them easier to be used before you add another complicated program on to the layer.
BRAND: That was former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift, who is also an education advisor to the McCain campaign. And to hear what Senator Barack Obama would do for higher education, I spoke with Melody Barnes. She's a senior domestic policy advisor for the campaign.
Ms. MELODY BARNES (Senior Domestic Policy Advisor, Obama Presidential Campaign): What Senator Obama has proposed, in fact, one of the first things he did when he arrived in the Senate a few years ago is propose an expansion to Pell grant program. And that bill actually passed this past year, and so Pell grants will go up from $4,300 to $4,800 by 2009, and then another $600 in 2012. And what he wants to do is to expand Pell grants even further.
What he also plans to do is offer a $4,000 tax credit for middle class families, as long as the student is willing to do 100 hours worth of community service. And he also wants to tackle the student loan system. There are a lot of reforms, some of them started this past year, but he thinks that we should go a little further in dealing with that, and that will also increase savings for taxpayers and savings for families.
BRAND: Now, how would Senator Obama pay for all of this? As we know, the country's in a financial crisis. The budget deficit is now at a record $454.8 billion dollars.
Ms. BARNES: Right, it's a lot of money.
BRAND: Yes, and so Senator Obama has a lot of ambitious programs that would cost a lot of money.
Ms. BARNES: What he's proposing is that we move more aggressively to a direct student loan system so that, as opposed to paying subsidies that make our system more expensive right now and, in fact, lead to a system where we're subsidizing banks who are in turn not necessarily giving out the loans appropriately to the students who need them and deserve them, we need to go to a system that is a direct loan system and will save us about three billion dollars a year.
In addition, he's looking at a host of other kinds of cost-saving measures. There's withdrawing responsibly from Iraq, which will save us about $90 billion a year. There's also cutting earmarks back to 1994 levels. That's going to save us another nine billion dollars a year. There are a whole host of reforms along those lines that will give us the kind of cost savings we need so that, in turn, we can devote that to sending our kids to school and getting them the proper college education.
BRAND: So given, though, that the country has been in a financial crisis that has just been exacerbated in the last several weeks, is he willing to adjust any of his proposals or any of his goals in light of that and to say, you know, I'm sorry, but I will have to postpone some of my domestic policies.
Ms. BARNES: He's spoken to that, I believe, during the debate. He said some things that I may have wanted to put on the table immediately to get done very early in my tenure, I may have to slow that down a little bit. But the big investments, the big problems and crises that face this country, we have to get started because, in fact, by untying that Gordian knot, we will, in fact, be able to grow our economy, create the jobs we need while we're also addressing the big problems that we face.
BRAND: Well, thank you very much.
Ms. BARNES: Well, thank you. I enjoyed being on the program and talking to you.
BRAND: That's Melody Barnes. She's a senior domestic policy advisor for Senator Barack Obama, and there's more to come after this.
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