For college students looking for a Democratic presidential candidate who would significantly lighten their tuition bills, there’s good and bad news. The good news: one exists. The bad news: he dropped out of the race.

John Edwards, the populist former senator, peppered his early campaign with policy proposals to help students deal with the ballooning cost of higher education. These weren’t everyday abstract commitments to “America’s future” or “our children.” His most dramatic idea was to pay the first year of tuition, fees and books at a public college – all of it – for 2 million students who work part-time and fulfill several other requirements.

But there’s more good news. Edwards may have been steamrolled in the early primaries, but his ideas weren’t. He pushed rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to the left, and they now share his zeal for making college accessible for everyone.

So is Clinton or Obama better for students? That’s not a simple question.

Both propose making a welcome change to the way students and their parents apply for financial aid. Instead of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – whose complexity and length Obama notes prevents many uneducated families from sending their children to college or receiving aid – there would be a box to check on the federal income tax return. Families who checked the box would then receive a letter from the Department of Education listing their aid eligibility.

“This will save families and students 100 million hours a year,” Clinton said in her impressive Oct. 11 speech at New Hampshire’s Plymouth State University in which she outlined her education plan. “It’ll save the government money. And it will increase, we estimate, the college-going rate by about 5 to 7 percent.” That last estimate sounds too optimistic, but it certainly would have a positive effect.

Both also propose tax breaks for families who have children in college. Under Clinton’s plan, a tax credit of up to $3,500 would be given to families to offset college costs. Obama is proposing a $4,000 credit. Both proposals promise that the money gets to the families in time to pay the tuition bill (they differ on how) and that if a family doesn’t pay that much in taxes, the remainder will be refunded to them.

One of Clinton’s proposals that Obama isn’t touting is a new GI Bill. She says it would pay for tuition as well as a three-year “living allowance” for military veterans with four years of active duty. That’s a good thing to hear, and I hope Obama starts talking about this more, especially given his grandfather’s debt to the original GI Bill, which sent him to college.

Two other major ideas are unique to Clinton. One is mandating a fixed tuition rate for each freshman class at a public college. That means if students pay $22,000 for the first year, they’ll pay the same for the remaining three. The second is changing the way AmeriCorps participants are rewarded for their public service commitment from a static percentage – which has remained the same since her husband created the program in 1993, even as tuition has risen – to a $10,000 scholarship.

Obama has taken one giant leap on financial aid policy that Clinton hasn’t. Prodded by Edwards, he is proposing the elimination of subsidies to private student loan providers in favor of direct lending by the government. Some experts say this could pump billions of dollars into federal financial aid by cutting expensive – and often misused – subsidies.

Clinton and Obama both have strong records on education, so these aren’t empty promises that will disappear around February 2009. For an idea of how seriously Obama takes college affordability, consider that the first bill he sponsored as a U.S. senator would have increased the maximum Pell Grant. Both supported regular Pell Grant increases and voted for one last year. How they’re going to pay for all of this is not entirely clear, but for most of their proposals they’ve provided some rough calculations. Clinton, for instance, says she would freeze the estate tax at 2009 levels, and the resulting tax revenue from estates valued at more than $7 million would help pay for financial aid improvements.

Like most issues, there’s not much difference between Obama and Hillary when it comes to financial aid. Still, because of his commitment to direct lending, Obama’s proposals would be slightly better for students’ wallets.

If any of this gets done, though, be sure to thank John Edwards.

Karl Stampfl was the Daily’s fall/winter editor in chief in 2007. He can be reached at

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