LISTENING TO presidential campaign rhetoric, it sometimes seems as if the candidates are offering not merely alternate policies but alternate descriptions of reality. Rarely is this truer than when Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush talk about the costs of college tuition. Mr. Kerry speaks of the recent growth in tuition costs, which are rising faster than inflation, and the consequent squeeze on middle- and lower-income students. Yet a spokesman for the president's campaign calls Mr. Kerry's attacks "at odds with the facts that more Americans have college degrees than ever before, and the amount students pay in tuition costs is down by a third since 1998." Mr. Kerry's campaign points out that the amount awarded in federal Pell Grants, which provide tuition funding for low-income students, has stayed flat for the past several years. Mr. Bush's Web site, by contrast, says that the president's proposed funding for Pell Grants has increased by $4.1 billion, or 47 percent, since fiscal 2001 and that the number of recipients has increased by a million students.
To some extent, the differences can be explained away. It is true that tuition has risen dramatically, for example, but it is also true that more financial aid and scholarship money is available: Few students actually pay the "sticker price" for college education. At the same time, the Kerry campaign is correct to say that the amount of Pell Grant money awarded, per student, has merely kept pace with inflation. And the Bush campaign is also correct in saying that overall funding has risen. This is because there are more students going to college -- and more of them, over the past few years, have been poor enough to qualify for the grants.
But the differences between the two positions are not merely semantic. For while the effect of tuition hikes and grant freezes may not be as dramatic as Mr. Kerry sometimes seems to suggest, it is clear that if any group has been affected by them, it is low-income students, to whom disproportionately less grant aid is flowing. This is partly because more scholarship aid, nowadays, is merit-based rather than need-based. It's also partly because Pell Grant awards, as Mr. Kerry says, have remained flat.
Mr. Bush has not, so far, chosen to make much of an issue of this disparity on the campaign trail. He advocates raising the amount of Pell Grant money for students who take a rigorous college-prep program in high school, as provided in some states, but this could only affect about 30,000 students. Mr. Kerry, by contrast, puts this issue at the center of his education platform, alongside school testing and accountability, which we wrote about yesterday. He proposes a very substantial boost in funding for low-income students, mostly by making tuition tax credits refundable -- meaning that those whose income is too low to qualify for a credit get cash instead. He also proposes to pay for this change by altering the way student loans are financed and by preventing banks from guaranteeing themselves excess profits.
Increasing the number of low-income students who attend college is an ambitious goal, and one that intuitively seems as if it might appeal to precisely the voters both candidates are courting. That makes it all the more odd that the president barely addresses it. Or perhaps, given his campaign's assessment of the issue, it isn't surprising: If a problem doesn't exist, after all, it doesn't require a solution.