Ohio Senate candidates differ in how to lower college costs

Senator Sherrod Brown. Photo courtesy MCT.

Daniel Moore

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Mandel wants more transparency, Brown wants more state funding.

While Ohio heats up as the battleground for the presidential election, one of the most contested — and most expensive — Senate races in the country is unfolding less than four weeks before ballots are cast.

Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and his Republican challenger Josh Mandel have raised more than $25 million thus far in contributions, the third most behind Massachusetts and Texas. But with the rising cost of college and student loan debt, both candidates are talking about a different dollar amount: the sticker price of higher education.

In 2010, 77 percent of Kent campus graduates had accumulated student loan debt averaging $28,000 each, according to the Project on Student Debt. That’s higher than Ohio State, Ohio University, Miami University and University of Cincinnati.

A course overload fee of $440 — $880 for out-of-state students — per credit hour above 17 approved last spring sparked protests in Risman Plaza.

Brown said while the federal government’s “only a small part of the answer” to bringing down college costs, it needs to be more aggressive in areas it can help.

“We need to work with state governments better,” Brown said. “They just don’t help enough with college tuition, clearly.”

State support for higher education has been cut dramatically in recent years, which has led administrators struggling to fill the gap. Kent State’s budget last fall reflected a 10 percent cut in state money and a 13.3 percent increase from tuition and fees from the previous year.

“It has a lot to do with who’s in the legislature and who’s governor,” said Brown, who added former Democratic governor Ted Strickland froze tuition rates for a couple of years while in office. “You’ve got to put some effort into changing what these people are doing in Columbus. You have a legislature and governor that seem more interested in tax cuts for upper-income people than (funding) higher education.”

In a written statement, Mandel said little about state funding but instead focused on “administrative costs and salaries” as the driving factor of rising costs.

“As costs continue to soar, the percentage of students taught by adjuncts and teachers assistants has gone up, way up,” Mandel wrote. “Today, there are more and more people colleges are hiring that are outside the classroom.”

The transparency of a student’s tuition payment is also a concern he would address as senator, Mandel wrote. He cited his creation of a “top-bottom review of the way we do business” in the State Treasurer’s Office as something he would take to the federal level.

“I want to do the same thing in the Senate where we take an in-depth look how we operate our education system and increase transparency at colleges and universities so we all know what we’re paying when we write that tuition check,” Mandel wrote.

Brown said he was one of the leaders in the expansion of Pell Grant coverage and froze the interest rates for Stafford Loans twice during his six-year term.

“I was in campuses all over the state getting ideas from students and organizing to put pressure on Congress to do that,” Brown said.

Poll numbers have favored Brown throughout the campaign — but not by much. An average of national polls since Oct. 4 shows Brown holding a 4 percent lead statewide, according to Real Clear Politics. A Rasmussen poll indicates a tie at 46 percent, with 6 percent still undecided.

The two candidates are scheduled to debate for the first time Monday at the City Club of Cleveland Renaissance Hotel.

Contact Daniel Moore at [email protected].