WASHINGTON -- Sensing a political opening in the soaring costs of higher education, Democrats have seized on college aid and made it a key pillar of their election-year agenda, hoping their pledge to make school affordable pays dividends in November.
The daunting expense of college is one of an array of issues facing the middle class -- along with health care, gas prices and the minimum wage -- that Democrats are molding into a social agenda they hope will resonate with voters.
"We need to win the House," said Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "With the Republicans in control, they have made it very clear they are not going to work on the affordability of college."
Republicans, however, insist that higher education is a priority for their party, and they point to two new grant programs as evidence. They say funding student aid has become a challenge amid declining state budgets, increased college enrollment and a huge federal deficit, and they claim Democrats are playing politics with the issue. "Erroneous information has been put out by Democrats," said Rep. Ric Keller, a Florida Republican.
Both sides agree that the cost of going to college is rising, and so is student debt. Over the past four years, the cost of attending a public four-year college has increased 32 percent, while median family incomes have risen less than 6 percent.
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the total cost of attendance has climbed to $15,810 for the 2006-2007 school year from $10,830 in 2000-2001. At the University of Chicago, a private institution, the cost climbed from $32,877 to $44,613 in the same period.
As a result of tuition jumps, 62 percent of undergraduates are taking out loans, with the average debt totaling $19,800, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Democrats refer to two recent actions they say show the Republican-controlled Congress' indifference to the problem. In February, $12 billion in savings from changes to federal student aid programs were directed toward deficit reduction instead of additional student assistance.
And this month, an interest rate increase enacted by Congress in 2002 took effect, boosting the rate on new loans for students to a fixed 6.8 percent and the rate on new loans taken out by parents to a fixed 8.5 percent.
"We want to make it more accessible and more affordable for people who are qualified," Miller said. "The Republicans have taken a different tack."
Democrats have introduced a number of bills tackling college costs, including one by Miller and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, to halve the interest rates on student loans. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts has introduced a more comprehensive bill that would increase the maximum allocation under the Pell Grant from $4,050, which has been the cap since 2003, to $5,100.
Republicans dismiss the moves as political gamesmanship. Keller pointed out that Democrats, Republicans and student groups all came to a consensus on the new fixed-interest rates and that the rate increase was a result of that agreement.
Now, Keller said, Democrats are going back on the agreement. And they have no suggestion for how the government would make up the lost income if the interest rates were lowered as they claim to want, he added.
"If you are going to propose 3 percent [interest rates] and not tell me how to pay for it, why not propose 0 percent?" Keller said. "If you are going to make a political statement, why not go the whole nine yards?"
Keller also noted that the Republican-led Congress has created two grant programs for low-income students who are Pell-eligible and also demonstrate an aptitude in math and science. Pell Grant funding has increased 71 percent since 2000, he added, but because a growing number of students are receiving the aid, raising the maximum individual award drastically hasn't been affordable.
Democratic candidates have not been shy about raising the issue. For example, Kirsten Gillibrand, a congressional candidate in New York, called a news conference at Skidmore College to announce a proposal that middle-class families receive a $10,000 tax deduction each year for the cost of college tuition.
The issue has also entered the presidential arena. Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat and a prospective presidential candidate, recently proposed offering a $6,000 tax credit to cover college costs for families who make less than $100,000 a year.
More broadly, Democrats complain that the Republicans have kept a comprehensive discussion of college costs and what to do about them off the congressional agenda, especially in the Senate. Republicans have preferred to focus on issues designed to energize their base, such as a same-sex marriage ban and a flag-burning amendment, they say.
Education advocates argue that despite the cost, every attempt should be made to help students pay for college.
"This is sort of a national priority," said Earl Hadley, the education coordinator for Campaign for America's Future, a liberal policy research project. "We don't question how we pay for the Iraq war. To make our country strong, we need well-educated students."
Marni Goldberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.