Higher education a critical election issue for students

Lacey Crisp

On a college campus, the presidential candidates’ higher-education goals can be a deciding factor in an election.

In a Minnesota Daily poll taken in September, 82 percent of students who responded said education was very important in deciding whom they would support for president.

University-wide

Tom Zearley, president of the Minnesota Student Association, said tuition increases are a big factor in this year’s elections.

“Since 1991, the percentage of the state’s budget that goes to higher education has been on a decline and has had multiple consequences,” Zearley said.

One of those consequences is higher tuition.

“Tuition going up is number one on probably every student’s mind for the last few years,” Zearley said.

He said MSA has accepted a 5.5 percent tuition increase for next year.

“The rationale behind it is realistically if we look at the situation, it would be laughed at if we asked for no increase,” he said.

Zearley said he would like the State Legislature to lay out what the University is going to look like in 10 to 15 years.

“Students are looking for some sort of direction as to where the University is heading,” he said.

Tony Richter, vice president of the College Republicans, said it’s easy to blame the legislatures for schools’ problems.

He said the University should look at how it can cut costs.

“Obviously, there is an increased burden on students,” Richter said. “I have heard the out-of-pocket cost for students has been the same because of grants and scholarships.”

He said Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s proposal sounds too good to be true.

“If John Kerry feels that every student deserves an extra $4,000, students need to realize that the money is not coming from John Kerry, but hard-working families across America,” Richter said.

He also said the government does not exist to guarantee every student goes to college.

State outlook

Susan Heegard, director of the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office, said increased demands on the state budget are forcing cuts to higher education.

“I think it’s like anything else – you have to look at the budget and put the money where it is needed the most,” Heegard said.

She said an increasing need for Medicare has drained money that did go to higher education.

Heegard said students and parents need to be smart consumers.

“There is the sticker price of college, but with financial aid, grants and scholarships, it isn’t as expensive,” Heegard said.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said she thinks it is wrong the state is cutting support for higher education and hopes that changes next year.

“I’m not going to be looking at any cuts to my budget,” Pappas said. “In fact, I want to increase the budget so that we can keep tuition hikes down.”

Peter Zetterberg, director of research and reporting at the University, said he wants something to be done about decreased funding for schools instead of politicians playing the blame game.

“Our representatives in Congress, at the federal level, seem to favor low tuition and want the states to provide more support for higher education,” Zetterberg said.

He said the opposite is happening as states force tuition to increase but expect the federal government to help low-income students by increasing Pell Grants.

Amanda Hutchings, a University student running for the State Legislature on the Republican ticket, said she differs from her party on education spending.

“Any bill to cut funding to the (University) I would not support,” she said. “We have to give higher education the funding it deserves and the resources it needs to perform at the high level we expect.”

National outlook

Heegard said state and federal governments need to be able to spend money more wisely and pass needed legislation.

“We would like to see the Higher Education Act reauthorized,” Heegard said. “They need to get their ducks in a row and get it passed.”

The Higher Education Act needs to be reauthorized every five years. It sets the policies of financial aid, including loans and Pell Grants.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., is on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. She said the Higher Education Act is in committee because Republicans have failed to “make family priorities America’s priorities.”

The act has been extended until the lame duck session ends Nov. 20.

McCollum said her goal is to make higher education more affordable.

“In the 4th District we have over 20 colleges and universities,” McCollum said. “In order for Minnesota to stay strong, we need to have a big investment in higher education.”

She said that because of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, the United States’ deficit is growing, which leaves little money to assist students.

Bush plans on extending Pell Grants to high school students who take “rigorous” courses, making them eligible for a $1,000 grant. For 2006, Bush proposed grants up to $5,000 to low-income students who study math or science.

Kerry has proposed decreasing the recent tax cuts and said he wants to put some of that money toward higher-education tuition assistance.

Kerry spokesman Bill Burton said Kerry wants to give students a tax credit for going to school and would pay for that by getting rid of the recent tax cuts.

“By rolling back the tax cuts, we would have an extra $900 billion for things like tuition assistance and health care,” Burton said.

Representatives from Bush’s campaign were unavailable for comment.