In First Presidential Debate, Obama Touts Efforts For Increasing Access To College

10/04/2012 12:21 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2012

In the first presidential debate Wednesday evening, President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney mostly sparred over taxes, the deficit and the economy. The only other topic to receive much attention throughout the night was education, and the president seemed to be inserting issues relevant to young voters in several of his answers, including his first three.

Young voters were a critical voting block for Obama in 2008, and support him more than any other Democratic candidate since at least 1980. However, half of people 18-29 are not registered to vote, making it an uphill battle for the president to get them to the polls.

During one of his first responses, Obama brought up access to college right after mentioning his Race to the Top K-12 education reform initiative.

"So now I want to hire another 100,000 new math and science teachers, and create 2 million more slots in our community colleges so that people can get trained for the jobs that are out there right now," Obama said, "and I want to make sure that we keep tuition low for our young people."

Just after that, Romney mentioned how gasoline prices, food prices and health care costs have all gone up, but chose not to mention the cost of college.

Over four years, the cost of a public university's tuition has risen by an average of eight to 15 percent. Romney then said "education is key," before saying there was too much overhead for training and education programs by federal government.

When Obama touted cutting taxes for families, he said that would help them "buy a computer for their kid who's going off to college."

On health care, the president boasted how the Affordable Care Act allows young people to stay on their health insurance until age 26 -- a provision which Romney said he supports keeping, while adding "[you] don't have to have the government mandate that for that to occur."

Land grant colleges even got a shout out, which were established by the Morrill Act of 1962 exactly 150 years ago.

"[A]s Abraham Lincoln understood, there are also some things we do better together," Obama said. "So, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, let's help to finance the Transcontinental Railroad, let's start the National Academy of Sciences, let's start land grant colleges because we want to give these gateways of opportunity for all Americans because if all Americans are getting opportunity, we're all going to be better off."

Towards the end, Obama referred to his student loan reform package -- which the Republican platform objects to. Conservative lawmakers have insisted, falsely, is a "government takeover."

"When it comes to making college affordable, whether it's two-year or four-year, one of the things that I did as president was we were sending $60 billion to banks and lenders as middlemen for the student loan program, even though the loans were guaranteed," Obama said. "So there was no risk for the banks or the lenders, but they were taking billions out of the system.

"Governor Romney, I genuinely believe cares about education, but when he tells a student that, you know, 'you should borrow money from your parents to go to college,' you know, that indicates the degree to which, you know, there may not be as much of a focus on the fact that folks like myself, folks like Michelle, kids probably who attend University of Denver, just don't have that option."

In a rebuttal, Romney said "I'm not going to cut education funding. I don't have any plan to cut education funding and -- and grants that go to people going to college."

While Romney pledged not to cut Pell Grants, he did endorse the Paul Ryan budget during the Republican primary race, and said he would sign it into law if he were president. Ryan's budget includes around $170 billion in cuts to the Pell Grant program, and could "ultimately knock more than one million students off" the program over the next 10 years.

Romney also said about young people "that 50 percent of college graduates this year can't find work." What Romney was likely referring to was findings by researchers at Northeastern University, Drexel University and the Economic Policy Institute, based on data from the Census Bureau, which found 53.6 percent of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were "jobless or underemployed."

In 2000, "the share was at a low of 41 percent." The actual unemployment rate for recent graduates with bachelor's degrees is 6.8 percent, according to a study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Neither candidate addressed young people specifically in their closing statements.

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