Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton got rousing applause for mentioning loan legislation, but how did it play with students?
“We were so young, so in love, and so in debt,” Michelle Obama told delegates in Charlotte on Tuesday night, reminiscing about at time when she and the future president had combined student loan bills that were larger than their mortgage.
“That’s why Barack has fought so hard to increase student aid and keep interest rates down – because he wants every young person to fulfil their promise and be able to attend college without a mountain of debt.”
Bill Clinton made student debt a component of his epic speech to the convention on Wednesday night too. Obama’s student loan plan, he said, meant “no-one will ever have to drop out of college again for fear they can’t repay their debt.”
Both speakers received huge applause for their comments. But how did it play with real students on the convention perimeter?
Neither the first lady nor the former president mentioned that here in North Carolina, many students have faced extra costs this year as a result of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
The University of North Carolina warned in April that students at the university, and at other schools across the state, would have to pay more for university healthcare. “Based on more than three semesters of actual claims experience, as well as the new provisions of the Affordable Care Act, we are facing large increases in premiums for our students,” the university’s president, Tom Ross, wrote.
Students in North Carolina are required to have health insurance to attend. If they are not on their parents’ plan, and do not have a personal plan, they must join a university policy.
“I do have to get health insurance, and it did go up,” said Xeminia Edwards, from Statesville, North Carolina. Edwards is an anthropology major at UNC Charlotte, who was taking a break between classes on Wednesday afternoon. She had been struck by the hike. “I think it was around $300-400 last year, and this year it’s $700. It kind of sucks because I pay $700 for health insurance but I have a $350 deductible.”
Obama narrowly won North Carolina, traditionally a Republican stronghold, in 2008, but faces an uphill battle to retain the state in November, with the latest polls putting him about four points behind Mitt Romney.
“I don’t feel like he has performed well for students. Interest rates keep going up on our loans and it doesn’t look like they’re ever going to go down,” said Nick, a 22-year-old studying computer science. He voted for Obama in 2008, but said he would commit to Mitt Romney this time around.
“I don’t personally believe in [Romney’s] social reforms, but on the fiscal side at least he has an idea of what we should do. Obama’s had his chance and he’s kind of been slipping.”
In a May paper, A Chance for Every Child, Romney argued that “flooding colleges with federal dollars only serves to drive tuition higher” and said he would simplify the financial aid system and regulations to encourage competition and reduce costs. Romney has said he will not boost Pell grants or help students pay off loans.
Since elected Obama has increased the maximum for Pell grants available to college students, and his 2009 economic stimulus introduced tax credits enabling some young people to save $2,500 a year. If re-elected, Obama has promised to make those tax credits permanent, while he has proposed linking federal aid to schools with their ability to keep tuition fees low.
While some students in North Carolina will pay more for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, nationwide many will pay a lot less. Stephen, who at 25 is studying mechanical engineering in Charlotte, found himself eligible for healthcare on his parents’ policy under Obama’s health provisions – which increased the age students could stay on their parents’ plans to 26.
“For a while I had to have my own plan and it was quite a bit more expensive for me, rather than being on a family plan for another couple of years. Saved some money,” he said.
Young people were a crucial part of Obama’s victory in 2008, the president claiming 66% of the under-30 vote. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1031/young-voters-in-the-2008-election But with the average student debt at $23,300 in 2011, more than $1tn currently outstanding in student loans, and an unemployment rate among young workers of 17.1%.
Gallup’s long-range average polling still shows Obama with a significant lead, 60% of under-30s compared to Romney’s 33%, but enthusiasm looks to have waned, with only 60% of registered voters under 30 saying they will definitely vote.
Michelle Obama’s speech touched on more than student debt, however, hinting at the negative impact on women’s rights under Romney and stressing Obama’s ability to empathise as a man with a history of “turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods”. There were signs from the students the Guardian spoke to on Wednesday that enthusiasm for the president was still high.
Despite Edwards being hit by the healthcare rise, she said Romney and the Republicans’ stance on social issues was more important.
“If I had to vote today I would still vote for Obama. A lot of it is because of the whole women’s rights thing that’s come out with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. I’m a woman gender studies minor, so that’s really big for me.”
Kamoru Jimoh, who moved from Louisiana to North Carolina aged six, and now at 25 is studying philosophy and economics, said he was looking for someone “who can see things from my perspective”.
“I know that Obama went to school and I know that he got in debt. He had to pay his tuition back. So if nothing else, he knows what it’s like to be in my shoes and he knows that it I uncomfortable to be in my shoes right now.
“Mitt Romney? Even if he did go to college, even if he did go to school, he’s had plenty of money to not have to worry about ever being in debt. So how are you going to start telling me how you’re going to help me handle my problems, when you’ve never really been involved in that problem?”
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