By HOLLY RAMER
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - New Hampshire isn't just first in the nation when it comes to hosting presidential primaries. It also ranks first in student-loan debt, and now the winner of the state's Republican presidential primary is seizing on that fact to argue that President Barack Obama has let down students.
Coinciding with Vice President Joe Biden's visit last week to Keene State College, the Republican Party released a web ad juxtaposing video of New Hampshire college students describing their staggering debt with what it characterized as Obama's failed promises to deliver relief. But the truth is far more complicated, and at least one of the students featured in the ad was not happy to learn that his comments were used to further an argument he rejects.
"Considering I am not a supporter of Mitt Romney, this is not exactly sitting well with me," said Matt Raso, who just finished his sophomore year at Southern New Hampshire University. The 19-year-old from Warwick, R.I., expects to graduate with roughly $80,000 in debt and said he doesn't hold Obama or the federal government responsible for any of it.
"They can't really control too much of what each school does," he said.
The ad was later removed after the television station that interviewed Raso objected to the use of its copyrighted material. But Romney's campaign stood by its assertion and plans to make the same argument in other battleground states, spokesman Ryan Williams said.
"We're highlighting the fact that the president has not been able to help students deal with this crushing debt," he said.
U.S. seniors who graduated with student loans in 2010 owed an average of $25,250, up 5 percent from the previous year, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, an education advocacy group that compiles data reported by colleges and universities. New Hampshire's average was just above $31,000, the highest in the nation.
In neighboring Massachusetts, which now ranks 12th, the average debt carried by college graduates increased by nearly 25 percent when Romney was governor from 2004 to 2007.
And while Romney's campaign and the Republican Party have seized on New Hampshire's ranking, "this is not a new issue," said Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the education advocacy group. Its annual rankings date to 2005, and New Hampshire has been in the top five each year for a variety of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with the president or the federal government.
One significant factor is the state's mix of colleges and universities.
The percentage of New Hampshire students who attend private schools is higher than the national average, 40 percent compared to 29 percent nationally. Private schools generally are more expensive than public schools, and New Hampshire's private schools tend to be more expensive than its own public schools as well as private schools in other states.
New Hampshire's public colleges and universities also are more expensive than other state schools, which is illustrated by another ranking that likely contributes heavily to the state's high debt level: New Hampshire is last in per capita state support for public higher education.
That's according to the annual Grapevine study by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, which found overall state support for higher education declined nearly 8 percent nationwide last year. While nearly every state cut its funding for higher education last year, New Hampshire's decline was the steepest: the Legislature cut funding to the university system by 48 percent.
That's not to say federal policies have no impact. Abernathy said the debt figures would be higher had federal spending on Pell Grants to low-income students not roughly doubled in 2009-2010 school year, compared to two years earlier.
Obama not only accomplished that, but won approval for a college tax credit worth up to $10,000 over four years and wants Congress to reduce federal aid to colleges that go too far in raising tuition, said Holly Shulman, the Obama campaign's New Hampshire spokeswoman. Romney, meanwhile, supported the House-passed budget, which would cut funding for Pell Grants.
Obama, Romney and lawmakers of both parties say they want to protect college students from a sharp increase in interest rates on federal subsidized loans. But proposals to keep the rates from doubling on July 1 have become stuck in election-year wrangling over how to pay for the $6 billion cost.
Though Biden didn't talk about student loans in New Hampshire, he and Obama have been traveling to college campuses in key battleground states in recent months to talk up the issue.