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Where Higher Ed Policy Changes Fall In Obama's Priorities Unclear

This story was written by Marissa Lang, The Diamondback

Despite major increases in voter turnout among young people, college students and experts say it remains to be seen whether their top priorities, such as the economy and higher education, will be high on President-elect Barack Obama's agenda.

One month after Obama's historic election to the highest office in the country, most students say they are still confident Obama will remember them and their needs.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a national research organization that focuses on the civic engagement patterns of young people, voter turnout among the 18- to 29-year-old demographic was substantially higher this year than in past elections. At the university, turnout was about 130 percent higher.

Many students said issues were a main reason young people supported Obama, citing the economy and Obama's clear higher education policies as attractive to young voters, and hope their importance rings true in his new administration.

"The economy is a huge issue," College Republicans President Chris Banerjee said. "This election was about the economy. College tuition costs and the job market are really important for students, and Obama knows people are expecting him to do something about that."

The main features of Obama's higher education plan are creating a fully refundable tax credit that will ensure the first $4,000 of a college education is "completely free for most Americans," as long as they complete 100 hours of community service per year, according to Obama's Web site. He would also overhaul the Free Application for Student Financial Aid, which would be replaced by a checkbox on tax forms.

With the cost of higher education on the rise and the economy now officially in a recession, students said the overhaul of FAFSA and creating an opportunity for college students to trade in community service for tuition credit is not only welcome, but long overdue.

"I've always thought the FAFSA was kind of BS," senior kinesiology major Sarah Easterwood said. "But it's so tough to get a job without a college degree, and with the way the economy is right now, you can't get a loan on your own, and no one wants to co-sign. It would be awesome if [Obama] really instates that program where you can trade in community service hours for money that would go toward your education. I'd definitely do it."

University officials said that though neither of these policies would completely change the financial aid system, it would help lessen processing costs for universities by decreasing the amount of paperwork and the number of middle-men.

"[If Obama were to eliminate FAFSA], the Department of Education would have to match the income information with the IRS or use the tax return solely as a measure of wealth," Director of Student Financial Aid Sarah Bauder said, adding that the Department of Education has been writing up a proposal for a simplified FAFSA that would reduce the number of questions about household income from 37 to two. "The goal is to provide a form, which would be less complicated and, ultimately, provide access to low-income students."

Financial experts echoed the sentiment that while Obama's plan would not revolutionize the financial aid system, it would be a step in the right direction - provided he sticks to his campaign promises.

"The best way to make college more affordable is to increase grant aid and other types of aid that don't need to be repaid," said Edie Irons, communications director for The Project on Student Debt. "As long as there's no fine print and Obama can offer students that option, it would be a very important piece of the puzzle. Student loans are a fact of life for two-thirds of college sudents."

But experts said a one-time political outpour from young voters may not be enough to gain the necessary clout to hold Obama to these promises, and that they would need to stay involved if they want the high youth turnout for the election to look like more than a sporadic whim.

"AARP is one of Washington's most powerful lobbies because you can reliably count on people over the age of 60 to vote in every election, consistently," TerpsVote coordinator Devin Ellis said. "Until the 18- to 29-year-olds prove that they are a real voting bloc and not just a one-time outing, it's going to be more difficult to have the same influence. More than anything, this election was a wakeup call. It is very significant, and it could be the first part in terms of things to come."

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