10/19/2012 06:45 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Romney's College Aid Ruse

In Governor Romney's answer to the first question in Tuesday's debate, he enthusiastically announced his intention to expand the Pell Grant program that helps low-income and working class families pay for college. His facial expression seemed to suggest that we all should have been able to deduce this intention from his previously-released plans, and that only a skewed partisan attack would suggest anything different.

As thrilled as I am to hear Governor Romney speak to his commitment to college financial aid, it is reasonable for Americans to have doubts about that commitment. Let me walk you through this maze of uncertainty.

Let's start with the education message points that are posted on They criticize the "flood of federal dollars" to financial aid that "have benefited the system, not students." More money "will not solve the problem." What will he do instead? "A Romney Administration will refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most." Fair warning -- "refocus" is a polite word for budget cuts.

On the other hand, President Obama's commitment to Pell Grants is clear. He doubled his investment in scholarships and tuition tax credits in part by refocusing billions in federal tax dollars that had been going to middlemen in the student loan program. (I use "refocus" in the traditional way, meaning to take away from one recipient and move it to another.) Will Governor Romney continue to stand up to banks that want those no-risk profits? To the contrary, his plan calls for returning the program and billions in wasteful subsidies to the banks. Where will the money come from to pay for that?

His source for his newfound plan to expand Pell Grants is apparently the same source as for his tax cut: unknown. In fact, Romney is promising to balance the budget while slashing taxes by $5 trillion and spending $2 trillion on a defense build-up our military leaders haven't requested. Keeping all those promises would require cutting domestic spending by 53 percent by the end of the decade, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That is a lot of focus.

At the debate Governor Romney also talked about making financial aid more reliable. Think back to the beginning of the recession, when the credit markets were crashing. Remember all those headlines wondering whether college students were going to be able to get their loans? It was President Obama's reforms that made the loan program more reliable and simpler for students, and less costly to taxpayers, in part by eliminating costly and unreliable banks as middlemen. Governor Romney's plans to reverse that progress would bring back both the headlines and the uncertainty for students and families.

To figure out what someone would do in the future, look at what he did in the past. Let's look at the Abigail Adams scholarship program that Governor Romney pointed us to in the debate. As governor, Romney mailed letters to students whose test scores qualified them for the scholarship promising, in bold letters, "four years of free tuition." Usually when someone says "tuition" they really mean "tuition and mandatory fees." What the then-governor didn't tell the high school students -- and didn't tell the rest of America on Tuesday night -- was that fees were excluded, and the fees in Massachusetts are four to five times larger than what is technically called "tuition." This gave students the impression they were going to be getting far more money than they would actually get. Using this deceptive promise, the program lured students to colleges where, according to a recent study, they paid more than they expected and graduated at lower numbers than if they had had attended a different college.

The Romney education plan calls for better information so consumers can make good choices. But the scholarship program Governor Romney points to as an example of his leadership failed that basic test.

Investing in higher education is one of the best ways we can secure the future of our country. President Obama has demonstrated his willingness to fight special interests so we can focus our federal investment on building that future and a stronger economy. It doesn't take a college degree to see that Governor Romney's attempt to portray himself as an advocate for college financial aid is not supported by the evidence.