In Debate, Romney Voices Support for Expanding Pell Grant Program

In the second presidential debate, on Tuesday night, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney offered some of his most explicit support yet for the Pell Grant program, while President Obama touted several of his administration’s achievements that affect higher education.

The first question in the town hall-style debate came from 20-year-old Jeremy Epstein, a junior at Adelphi University. Addressing Mr. Romney, Mr. Epstein asked about his job prospects as a college student who will graduate in 2014. Mr. Romney responded by saying he would seek to make college more affordable and ensure that students like Mr. Epstein had jobs when they graduated.

“I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing,” he said. Mr. Romney also touted a merit scholarship he instituted as governor of Massachusetts; the scholarship waives tuition at the state’s public colleges for students who achieve high scores on a standardized test.

Mr. Romney’s remarks about the Pell Grant program reflected his evolution over the past several months on the issue. In a policy document released in May, Mr. Romney’s campaign said that the program was on an unsustainable path and pledged to “refocus Pell dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs and last-minute funding patches.”

In September, at a forum hosted by Univision, a Spanish-language television network, Mr. Romney distanced himself from the Pell Grant provision of the budget offered by Republicans in the House of Representatives and crafted by his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. That budget proposal would tighten the eligibility requirements for Pell Grants and freeze the maximum award for a decade.

At the first presidential debate, earlier this month, Mr. Romney said he would not cut “grants that go to people going to college,” and in fact wanted them to grow.

But at Tuesday night’s debate, which was held at Hofstra University, in New York, Mr. Romney offered his most explicit pledge yet that he planned to increase the Pell Grant program. He did not offer any details, however, about how exactly the program would be expanded under his plan.

Referencing Mr. Romney’s comment about increasing the Pell Grant program later in the debate, Mr. Obama responded: “That’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve expanded Pell Grants for millions of people, including millions of young women, all across the country.”

Mr. Obama’s expansion of Pell Grants was financed by taking some of the savings from the end of subsidies to banks in the federal student-loan program. Mr. Romney has said he would restore the bank-based lending program.

Elsewhere in the debate, Mr. Obama touted his de facto Dream Act—a new policy that allows young people, including students, who are illegal immigrants to apply for deferments on their deportation. The president also highlighted his outreach to community colleges, as part of an effort to train workers for jobs that businesses are seeking to fill.

He reiterated the value of higher education at several points, telling Mr. Epstein, the student questioner, that “the fact that you’re making an investment in higher education is critical not just to you but to the entire nation.” Later, Mr. Obama said his grandfather’s use of the GI Bill to pay for a college education “wasn’t a handout” but rather “something that advanced the entire country.”

Mr. Romney, for his part, continued to make the case that the president’s economic policies had failed the nation, especially young people. He repeated the statistic that 50 percent of recent college graduates are not able to find jobs that require a college degree.

Correction (1/22/2013, 6:52 p.m.): This post originally misstated the nature of President Obama’s decision last year to defer efforts to deport students who are in the United States illegally. The action was technically a directive from the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, not an executive order by the president. The post has been updated to reflect this correction.

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