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Education policy comes into sharper focus

For those who've seen Mitt Romney's stump speech several hundred times, it's easy to recite the Republican's five point plan in our sleep: he wants to (1) expand U.S. energy policy, (2) improve education; (3) expand trade; (4) cut the deficit; and (5) help small businesses.

Do any of these planks come with any details at all? Well, no, but Romney promises to fill in the details later.

It's that second element of the five-part platform, however, that's of particular interest this week. On education, Romney's stump speech tells voters, "We're going to make sure our kids and our adults have the skills they need to succeed. We need to make sure our schools are the best in the world. They are not now. They will be. We'll make them the best."

How? The answer is one of Romney's biggest vulnerabilities.

The Democratic National Committee unveiled this video this morning, noting Romney's education plan and the details of the Republican agenda: slash Pell Grants, cut college tax credits, reintroduce the loan-system middleman that rewards banks instead of students, and encourage young people to choose wealthy parents when thinking about higher education.

And what about students who've worked hard, been accepted to the school of their choice, but don't have parents with large amounts of disposable income? Under Romney's vision, these people are simply out of luck. Higher education isn't an option -- young people who can't afford to go to their college of their choice should "shop around" for some other institution, because a Romney administration doesn't intend to help with Pell Grants or student loans.

And why is this suddenly an issue after spending months on the periphery? A couple of reasons, actually.

First, voters keep asking about it. Just yesterday, a college student in New Hampshire asked Romney about his plans to help her generation, which is facing crushing student-debt burdens.

After some vague talk about job creation, Romney said, "Now I know it is very tempting as a politician to go out and say, 'You know what, I'll just give you some money. The government's just going to give you some money and pay back your loans for you.' I'm not going to tell you something that's not the truth."

Notwithstanding the fact that Romney says things that are untrue with painful frequency, these comments were an important concession. This young woman is looking for a president who'll help expand opportunities for her and her generation, and Romney, in effect, is offering her nothing but well wishes. Indeed, he seemed to be chastising the very idea of using public institutions to help students with the costs of higher ed.

If she can't afford her tuition, and if she didn't choose wealthy parents, she should have "shopped around" for a less good school, giving up her slot to a student who comes from greater wealth.

The other reason this is of interest is that President Obama, whose advances on education policy are generally underappreciated, intends to take the offensive on the issue starting today.

On Tuesday, Obama will speak in Reno, Nev., and Columbus, Ohio, addressing Romney's higher education record in the context of vice presidential pick Paul Ryan's budget plan, the official said.

Obama intends to frame the issue as part of a stark choice between Romney, who has endorsed Ryan's budget plan, and Obama, who has increased funding for education.

According to nonpartisan think tank The Education Trust, Ryan's figures would cut slightly less than $170 billion from Pell Grants and loans over 10 years. Ryan's plan would also consider a maximum income cap for Pell eligibility, eliminate eligibility for students attending less than half-time, and convert the program into discretionary funding.

Polls suggest education is not a leading issue in the presidential campaign, but it's obviously an issue plenty of Americans care deeply about, and it's not hard to imagine the American mainstream looking askance at Romney's far-right plans that would move the nation's education policies backwards.