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Published: Monday, September 17, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The price of Obama's 'college affordability'

"No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don't have the money," President Barack Obama told the Democratic National Convention as he accepted his party's nomination in Charlotte, N.C., this month.
That sentence -- key in Obama's "college affordability" agenda -- says everything about this administration's approach to selling itself to the American voter.
What's wrong with the message? Let me count the ways.
It ignores reality. There is no reason a qualified poor kid cannot get into college in the United States simply because of money.
Richard J. Vedder, director of Ohio University's Center for College Affordability and Productivity, told me that Obama's correct, "people might get an acceptance at a relatively expensive private school that they can't afford to go to." But if students are accepted into one college, they can get into another, more affordable college, such as a community college, where Pell Grants cover tuition.
"If he's saying that not everyone can get into whatever college they want to get into, he's probably right," Vedder said. "I'm not sure that the American people would agree that every student should be able to get into the school they want." As an example, he mentioned Harvard University.
It hints that GOP rival Mitt Romney would usher in a Hobbesian era in which poor kids are denied all opportunity to a college education.
To the contrary, Brookings Institution fellow Beth Akers recently blogged that Romney has "expressed a preference for redistributing aid dollars toward the neediest students."
Akers concluded that both Obama and Romney want to "tackle" college affordability -- Romney through market-based reforms, Obama with increased Pell Grants and price controls.
It ignores the fact that a college education is not a ticket to the middle class or beyond if graduates cannot land good jobs.
The Associated Press crunched government data recently and found that 53 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. These graduates need good jobs far more than they need a break paying off their student loans. They need careers. They need to see an economic future, a path that can lead them out of a downsized economy.
Recent graduates need a president who can instill employers with the confidence to hire new workers. Yet all Obama can do is wave the promise of bigger loans that are easier to pay off.
Or not pay off.
It peddles a form of loan forgiveness in the name of "affordability."
Congress already passed an Obama measure to cap student loan payments at 15 percent of a graduate's discretionary income and forgive any outstanding balance after 25 years. This year, the Democratic National Committee platform held out "avenues for students to manage their federal student loans so that their payments can be only 10 percent of what they make each month." Actually, last year, the president issued an executive order that set a loan payment cap of 10 percent of income and proclaimed forgiveness of outstanding loan balances after 20 years for some graduates.
Romney's plan is to offer smarter financial aid, countered campaign policy director Lanhee Chen, "by working to create more diverse, affordable options for postsecondary education and by simplifying the financial aid system."
The Democrats' 2012 platform warns: "Tuition at public colleges has soared over the last decade and students are graduating with more and more debt; but Mitt Romney thinks students should 'shop around' for the 'best education they can afford.'"
America's student loan debt now exceeds the public's unhealthy credit card debt. Still, the Democrats think it's bad for young people to think about finances when they pick a school.
The president's remedy is to tell Americans: Vote for me and you can take out really big student loans. Be not afraid. As Vedder noted, "you've got a pretty good chance you won't have to pay it back."

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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