Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean laid out a $6-billion plan Thursday to help more students afford college, promising to increase federal financial aid and cap the amount graduates would have to repay yearly.
Focusing on an issue that also has spurred plans from several of his Democratic rivals, the former Vermont governor said too many students are discouraged from pursuing college because they don't believe they can pay for it.
"The sad truth is that there are a lot of your peers that will never make it," Dean told an overflow crowd in an auditorium at Dartmouth College here. "Kids in middle schools and high schools are losing hope. They stop working toward graduation because they assume that they'll never go to college."
Under his plan, eighth-graders who pledged to prepare and apply for college would be guaranteed $10,000 in financial aid through a mix of grants and loans, determined by their financial status. The money also could be applied to vocational schools. Qualifying families also would get help in developing a savings plan for college expenses.
Also, those who graduated from college would not have to use more than 10% of their annual income to repay student loans. Any money spent over that amount through repayment plans would be returned to them through a tax credit.
For those taking public service jobs, such as teachers, nurses or firefighters, the annual repayment would be capped at 7%.
The proposal is one of many that Dean would pay for by repealing the tax cuts passed under President Bush.
Dean's record on college aid was quickly challenged by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, another of the Democratic candidates. Gephardt's campaign charged that as a fiscally moderate governor, Dean proposed cuts to Vermont's college-aid program in the mid-1990s.
A Dean spokesman, Jay Carson, said small trims were made to the state's aid program during two tight budget years. But he said that during Dean's 10-year gubernatorial tenure, funding for higher education and financial aid rose 27% in Vermont.
Gephardt previously has harshly criticized Dean for backing Republican efforts during those years to scale back federal spending on Medicare. With such attacks, Gephardt and other Democratic contenders increasingly are trying to depict Dean as a politician trying to change his stripes as he seeks the presidency.
In his Dartmouth speech, Dean also pledged to spend $4.7 billion over four years to quadruple the number of AmeriCorps positions to 250,000. The national service organization would have 50,000 new positions dedicated to public safety, he said.
Many of Dean's opponents have offered similar plans to make attending college more attainable.
Under the proposal put forth by Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a student who gave 10 hours a week of community service would get one year of free tuition to a public university or community college.
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts has proposed an initiative offering students the chance to earn the equivalent of four years of public college tuition in their states in exchange for a two-year commitment to a national service program.
Gephardt supports making the first $10,000 in tuition tax deductible.
Just before Dean's 45-minute speech, he was confronted anew by the flap over his reference to the Confederate flag. As he was introduced, half a dozen students in the audience stood up and displayed large Confederate banners.
Dean did not react and the students sat down quietly, but the action sent a murmur through the crowd.
Later, two of the students who had participated in the action said they were offended by Dean's recent remark that he wanted to appeal to people who still embraced the Confederate flag.
"We thought that Dean's appeal to the Southerners with the Confederate flags on their trucks was demeaning," said Jonathan Beilin, an 18-year-old freshman from Claremont. "We feel his apology was insufficient, and he needs to address the issue properly."
Added Xi Huang, a 19-year-old sophomore from Boston: "Not only is it demeaning, degrading, but you're stereotyping a group of people. What's so different about stereotyping Southerners with the Confederate flag than stereotyping Asians or other people? There's no difference."
Both said they were not supporters of any of Dean's rivals, but they refused to say whether they were part of an organized group.
Times researcher Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.