What’s At Stake

WASHINGTON — For a few days in early June, as President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney sparred over student debt and interest rates, it seemed that higher education might play a major role in the 2012 presidential race.

Since then, it has largely faded into the background, the subject of occasional T.V. and radio advertisements or debate one-liners. Still, when voters go to the polls on Nov. 6, issues important to colleges and their students — some obvious, some less so — will hang in the balance.

Either Obama or Romney will confront fiscal challenges that could profoundly affect financial aid and research, and have the opportunity to shape policy on a range of issues — from labor relations and immigration to Title IX and for-profit colleges — and reshape the higher education landscape. Since many expect Congress will remain divided, making it difficult to pass major legislation, much of that is likely to happen through regulatory changes.

The two candidates’ agendas show divergent paths on higher education, as in much else, and colleges and their advocates can find positions to like (and to fear) from each. A second Obama term seems likely to bring greater scrutiny and regulation to all aspects of higher education, as the administration has pursued for the past four years. But the president is equally likely to continue his strong support for federal financial aid programs and his emphasis on college access and completion for low-income students, at least within the constraints of tight federal budgets.

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