Will Education Remain a Major Issue Post-DNC?

Thanks to speakers ranging from the First Lady to an ex-GI, education issues unexpectedly received primetime spotlight at the Democratic National Convention. An interactive word graphic by The New York Times shows that “education” was mentioned three times more at the DNC than at the Republican convention.

Wednesday night, during a 50-minute speech, former President Bill Clinton briefly touched upon the student debt crisis. He focused primarily on a little-known solution: income-based repayment plans (IBR). He argued that income-based repayment plans would lower the cost of student loans, saying that “no one will ever have to drop out of college again for fear they can’t repay their debt.”

Currently, few of the millions of borrowers who could benefit from the income-based repayment plans even know these options exist. Out of more than 36 million federal student loan debtors, less than 450,000 borrowers participate in the IBR program. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the Education Department is trying to make applying to these programs easier. For example, the the program’s online application includes a simplified tax submission feature.

The Obama administration’s Pay-As-You-Earn Plan, which went into effect July 2012, is aimed at recent and future graduates, starting with the Class of 2012. An estimated 1.6 million students “who went to school during the hardest economic period and now are trying to find jobs”, a Education Department told Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, are the main group for which the plan was crafted.

The new plan updates the current income-based repayment plan by capping loan payments at 10 percent of borrowers’ discretionary income. After 20 years of payments, the Department of Education will forgive the remainder of the loan balance.

On the convention’s first night, Newark Mayor Cory Booker trumpeted the increase in Pell Grants under President Obama. Nate Davis, a veterans affairs director at Cincinnati’s Xavier University, praised the president’s outreach and support for troops. He singled out the GI Bill as an example of this support, since Davis was able to attend and graduate from Xavier because of the 1944 law.

But few of the speakers discussed the impact of student loan debt on families like Michelle Obama did. She even discussed her own struggles with student loans toward the end of her speech:

And believe it or not, when we were first married, our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage. We were so young, so in love, and so in debt.

She said that the president’s personal experience has compelled him to push for policies that will allow students to graduate college “without a mountain of debt.”

During the introduction to her husband, Vice President Joe Biden, the Second Lady Jill Biden, gave a shout-out to her students “who work hard to create a better life for themselves and their families.” Mrs. Biden has taught English classes for thirty years and currently teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.

Before championing IBR programs as a fix to the country’s college debt crisis, President Clinton pivoted from his talk about the economic doom-and-gloom that led us to the job-lite recovery. To transition, he sadly used the “worker skills mismatch myth”. This myth, as College Guide has written about before, can always be tied back to employer surveys.

I can only hope that with the debate preps in full effect neither parties will forget how much education policy can play into swaying voters, as an Education Next report showed in 2009.

(h/t Mandy Zatynski of The Quick and the Ed for NYT graph)

Derrick Haynes

Derrick Haynes is an intern at the Washington Monthly.