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Obama Presses on College Costs as Romney Vies for Youth Vote

President Barack Obama hit college campuses and late night television to urge Congress to freeze student-loan interest rates as he engaged Republican Mitt Romney in a competition for young voters.

Obama and Romney tailored their economic message to attract college-age voters in what both sides say will be a close election in November as graduates face a weak job market and a ballooning debt load from education loans.

“I’ve been in your shoes, I know what I’m talking about,” Obama told students last night at the University of Colorado at Boulder, his second stop on a trip through three electoral battleground states. The president said that he and first lady Michelle Obama carried student debt until about eight years ago. “We’ve got to make college more affordable for you,” he said.

Romney, who declared himself the Republican presidential nominee last night after sweeping five primary contests, has agreed with Obama on stopping the rise in student-loan rates while blaming the administration for an economy in which “50 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.”

Voters age 18 to 29 were a key constituency for Obama in the 2008 election, with national exit polls showing he received 66 percent of their vote. He holds a 17 percentage point lead over Romney among those voters in the current campaign, according to an online survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.

Support for Obama

Forty-three percent preferred Obama with 26 percent backing Romney, according to the survey conducted from March 23 through April 9, with 30 percent saying they are undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.

Between speeches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and in Boulder, Obama, 50, taped an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” to emphasize his message. Today he’ll talk to an audience at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Coinciding with the trip to the three campuses, Rolling Stone magazine put the president on its cover and published an interview with Obama.

‘Out of the Mainstream’

Obama told the publication that Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail have moved “far out of the mainstream” of voters, and that will provide a “sharp” contrast for the general election. Reflecting his broader campaign strategy, Obama indicated he would seek to paint Romney as extreme on issues such as regulation, immigration and the budget that played prominently in the primary campaign.

“I don’t think that their nominee is going to be able to suddenly say, ‘Everything I’ve said for the last six months, I didn’t mean,’” Obama said in Rolling Stone. “I’m assuming that he meant it.”

Romney’s campaign went on the offensive before Obama left Washington yesterday morning.

“Four years ago, the president was able to fool a number of our college students into supporting his campaign and the result has been the highest level of unemployment for youth in our country’s recorded history,” Hank Brown, a former Republican U.S. senator who also served as president of the University of Colorado, said on a conference call organized by the campaign.

College Voters

Brown predicted a “dramatic turnaround” on college campuses with larger numbers voting for Republican candidates, including Romney, who he said is “younger and more dynamic” than the party’s 2008 nominee, Senator John McCain, who was 72 at the time of the election. Romney is 65.

Obama sought to show the students he identifies with their financial plight. Without mentioning his rival’s name, he also drew a distinction with Romney, who helped form the private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC in Boston and is the son of a former auto industry executive. He said in North Carolina that he and Michelle Obama “didn’t come from families of means” and only finished paying their student loans about eight years ago.

“I didn’t just get some talking points on this,” Obama told the crowd at the university’s Carmichael Arena. Obama drew cheers and shouts of “four more years” from the crowd before and after the speech

The three states Obama is visiting were crucial to his 2008 victory. Iowa and Colorado have been swing states, while Obama’s win in North Carolina was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.

Rate Freeze

The president first proposed the student loan rate freeze in his fiscal 2013 budget. The rate on federally-subsidized Stafford loans is scheduled to increase to 6.8 percent on July 1 from 3.4 percent unless Congress acts. The increase would affect about 7.4 million students, according to the White House, adding an average of $1,000 in payments overall. The Congressional Budget Office estimates a one-year freeze would cost $6 billion.

Romney said he wants Obama and Congress to extend the freeze “responsibly” by offsetting the cost in “a way that doesn’t harm the job prospects of young Americans.”

Obama also is calling on Congress to increase funding for work-study programs and extend a tuition tax credit.

Of the three states where Obama is making his pitch, only Iowa ranks near the top in terms of undergraduate debt, according to an analysis by The Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland, California-based policy and advocacy group.

Student Debt

North Carolina ranked 38th nationally both in average undergraduate student debt for the class of 2010, at $20,959, and percentage of graduates with debt, at 53 percent.

Colorado ranked 32nd for average debt, at $22,017, and 33rd for percentage with debt, at 55 percent.

Iowa ranked third nationally in average undergraduate student debt for the class of 2010, at $29,598, and fourth in terms of percentage of graduates with debt, at 72 percent.

New Hampshire topped the rankings for average undergraduate debt, at $31,048, while South Dakota topped the list for percent with debt, at 75 percent.

The average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year college has almost tripled since the 1995-1996 academic year and has more than doubled for a private-school education, according to data from the College Board, a New York-based nonprofit group whose members include universities.

Educational-loan debt has ballooned to $1 trillion, surpassing the amount owed on credit cards in the U.S., according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That includes federally backed and private loans taken out by students and their parents to pay for college and graduate school.

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