9th District candidates wrestle with college affordability issues

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 | 9:26 p.m. CDT; updated 8:33 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 2, 2008

COLUMBIA — Citing the rising costs of student loans and college tuition as top priorities, major-party candidates for Missouri's 9th Congressional District outlined their policy positions on education funding.

The issue of college affordability could hold particular significance for voters in the 9th District, as it is home to a number of colleges including MU and Truman State University.

Democratic candidate Judy Baker spoke on the issue Wednesday at MU, advocating an increase in federal spending to make college more affordable.

"A budget is a moral document: It tells you what your priorities are," said Baker, a state representative. "For me, our children's future is the first priority. So I think that there's plenty of money in the budget; it's just how you spend it and what you prioritize."

She was invited to speak by the National Education Association, a public education advocacy group that endorsed her for Congress in July. The group came to MU as part of its "Got Tuition?" campaign to raise awareness for college affordability and promote student voter turnout.

"There's been a really big awakening in the student population," Baker said. "They feel the encroachment of anxiety on their future. I think that very much the students are beginning to feel like, ‘If we don't show up, we're not going to be able to complain.'"

While the current credit crunch might have brought the issue of borrowing to the forefront, student debt grew dramatically even before the subprime mortgage issues of the past year. According to an American Council on Education report, borrowing through private student loans increased ninefold from 1996 to 2005.

Contributing to students' need for loans, federal scholarships have failed to keep up with rising tuition costs. Pell Grants, awarded on the basis of financial need, covered, on average, 84 percent of costs at a four-year college in 1975, according to a study by The College Board. By last year, that number had fallen to 32 percent.

Baker said she would increase Pell Grant funding if elected.

Blaine Luetkemeyer, the Republican Party candidate, said he met with UM System President Gary Forsee to discuss higher education issues and was "deeply committed" to working with him.

"I also am very concerned about the high cost of tuition that continues to outpace the growth of other indicators," Luetkemeyer wrote in an e-mailed statement. "In Congress, I will support policies that increase the availability of scholarships to students while also focusing on making college loans more affordable."

Both candidates also discussed the No Child Left Behind Act, a 2001 initiative designed to increase student accountability by setting standardized benchmarks to be reached.

Luetkemeyer said he supported "standards and accountability in the classroom," but that funding needed to be carefully applied.

"I think we need to make sure that local school boards and parents don't lose control of our schools to state and federal bureaucrats," he wrote in an e-mailed statement. "I also think it is extremely important that we limit the amount of education dollars spent on administrative functions.  We must spend as much as possible on classroom education."

Baker said that criticisms by teachers and students, as well as criticisms about the lack of funding, need to be addressed.

"It's important that we take another really good look at it and see what's working in it and for those things that are not working to retool that," she said.

Earlier this week, Luetkemeyer's campaign criticized Baker for what it referred to as hypocritical policies on higher education.

Baker voted against a bill earlier this year that would bar illegal immigrants from attending public universities and require that university administrators provide certification to that effect. This, Luetkemeyer spokesman Paul Sloca said, was tantamount to "draining taxpayer-funded resources from our public colleges and universities."

Baker campaign spokesman Paul Tencher said she voted the bill down to avoid creating excessive bureaucracy.

"Administrators already record this information, and the bill in question would have done nothing but increase administrative costs at a time when students cannot afford more tuition increases," Tencher said.

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