Related story: A guide to student loans
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- President Barack Obama went after the college vote Tuesday, pitching cheaper student loans as he courted the one age group where he has a decided advantage over Republican rival Mitt Romney. The twist? Romney, too, has endorsed the idea, though it's unclear whether deficit-leery Republicans in Congress will go along.
In the race for the White House, both the Obama and Romney campaigns see huge opportunities to court younger voters. This week, their efforts are focused on the millions of students -- and their parents -- who are grappling with college costs at a time when such debt has grown so staggering it exceeds the totals for credit cards or auto loans.
Trying to make it personal, Obama told students at the University of North Carolina that he and first lady Michelle Obama had "been in your shoes" and didn't pay off their student loans until eight years ago.
"I didn't just read about this. I didn't just get some talking points about this. I didn't just get a policy briefing on this," Obama said. "We didn't come from wealthy families. When we graduated from college and law school, we had a mountain of debt. When we married, we got poor together."
Obama's emphasis on his personal experience set up a contrast with Romney, whose father was a wealthy auto executive. It's a point the president is sure to return to during this summer's campaigning.
Though both Obama and Romney have expressed support for freezing the current interest rates on the loans for poorer and middle-class students, lawmakers are still exploring ways to pay for the plan. The timing is important because the rate will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 without intervention by Congress, an expiration date chosen in 2007 when a Democratic Congress voted to chop the rate in half.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has estimated about 15 percent of Americans, or 37 million people, have outstanding student loan debt. The bank puts the total at $870 billion, though other estimates have reached $1 trillion. About two-thirds of student loan debt is held by people under 30.
The loan rate freeze Obama and Romney are championing amounts to a one-year, election-year fix at a cost of roughly $6 billion. Congress seems headed that way. Members of both parties are assessing ways to cover the costs and then gain the votes in the House and Senate. Both parties have a political incentive to keep the rates as they are.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday, "I don't think anybody believes this interest rate ought to be allowed to rise." He added, "The question is how do you pay for it, how long do you do the extension."
One Democratic idea: Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Education Committee, said the money would come from closing a loophole that lets owners of privately owned companies called S corporations avoid paying the Social Security and Medicare payroll tax on part of their earnings.
Romney said this week that he agrees the loan rates shouldn't be raised, coupling that stance with criticism of Obama's economic leadership.
"Given the bleak job prospects that young Americans coming out of college face today, I encourage Congress to temporarily extend the low rate," Romney said in a statement.
Some conservative activists have denounced Romney's decision to match Obama's position on student loan rates.