President Obama greets a crowd in March at Nashua Community College in New… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — President Obama will try to add the cost of college to the campaign debate this week as he travels to campuses in three swing states and calls on Congress to prevent a hike in student loan interest rates this summer.
But the Republicans' presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, moved quickly Monday to forestall a debate on the issue, indicating that he would rather let Obama claim a victory on student loan rates than risk a political pummeling for his party on the subject.
More than 7 million students who need to take out new loans this year face a doubling in student loan interest rates under the popular Stafford loan program unless Congress votes to keep rates in place. Some Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to extend the current low rates because of the cost to taxpayers — about $6 billion a year.
With the cost of college a major issue for families, White House aides figured the issue would help showcase what Cecilia Munoz, director of the president's Domestic Policy Council, called a "contrast in approaches" between Obama's policies and those of congressional Republicans.
Last year, Obama used another pocketbook issue — the extension of a cut in the payroll tax — to politically bludgeon Republicans. GOP lawmakers resisted the tax cut for weeks, saying it would expand the deficit unless paid for with offsetting spending cuts, and Democrats reaped considerable political benefit.
Romney appears to have learned from that experience. At the end of a short news conference in Philadelphia, where he appeared with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential running mate, Romney volunteered that he thought Congress should keep the low rates in place.
"There's one thing that I wanted to mention," Romney said. "I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans.
"There was some concern that that would expire halfway through the year, and I support extending the temporary relief on interest rates for students as a result of student loans, obviously, in part because of the extraordinarily poor conditions in the job market."
Whether congressional Republicans will follow Romney's lead remains to be seen. In 2007, Congress voted to lower the interest rate on the loans to 3.4% for five years, ending June 30. Some Republicans have objected to another temporary measure to extend the lower rates without cutting spending to pay for them.
"I have serious concerns about any proposal that simply kicks the can down the road and creates more uncertainty in the long run, which is what put us in this situation in the first place," said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
But letting the rates jump to 6.8% — which would add more than $1,000 to the cost of the average loan — would be politically difficult in the middle of an election year. A senior GOP staff member said Republicans were studying ways to extend the program.
In the meantime, Obama plans to begin applying pressure with a trip to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose students took part in protests over tuition increases two months ago. He plans stops in two more swing states, visiting the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Iowa.
Young voters were a key group that helped carry Obama to victory four years ago, and campaign strategists have been eager to rekindle enthusiasm among them. So in battleground states where the president won't appear in person, his campaign is planning to focus on the issue of college costs.
In New Hampshire, for example, Obama campaign volunteers will hold phone banks on college affordability at more than two dozen locations this week, including a voter registration drive Saturday at a Campus Day of Action.
In Nevada, the campaign will host a round-table discussion on college affordability for the state's Latinos, another key voting group.
The campaign is highlighting policies they say Obama has adopted to expand access to higher education, including expanding Pell grants and capping loan payments to 10% of a graduate's monthly income.
Republicans are firing back by focusing on unemployment and underemployment among recent college graduates. An analysis of polling by Resurgent Republic, a Republican group, found that young voters tended to be more negative about the direction of the country than older Americans.
During a visit to Consol Energy in South Park, Pa., Romney cited an analysis of government data by the Associated Press showing that 53.6% of college graduates who had bachelor's degrees and were under age 25 were unemployed — the highest level in more than a decade.
Romney said Obama had told voters in 2008 that progress could be measured by whether people were able to get good jobs that paid for a mortgage.
"So on his own measure — people getting good jobs that can pay a mortgage — he's failed," Romney said. "It's time to get a president who can succeed."
Lisa Mascaro in Washington and Maeve Reston in South Park, Pa., contributed to this report.