Stretching out college bills

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MICHAEL DUKAKIS made an appeal to middle-class voters yesterday with a new proposal for paying college costs: Federally guaranteed bank loans would be repaid via payroll deductions during a graduate's working life. At first look, the idea seems promising. College costs have shot up nearly 75 percent in the last eight years, so the market for new suggestions is wide open. Dukakis's program would be accessible to anyone, and it would, in theory, relieve youths of huge obligations right after graduation.

Questions: What's the incentive for banks to participate? Since repayment would be a set percentage of everyone's earnings, whether high or low, would higher-income people opt out? How will the logistics work? Would this program be at the expense of other programs that serve poorer students?

Such questions will be debated a while, and probably will not be resolved unless the proposal goes through the legislative process.

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For now, at least, a candidate has introduced a rare touch of specificity into a presidential campaign that's been sagging under the dead weight of its own predictably orchestrated rhetoric.

George Bush has also spoken out on the financial aid issue. His idea is tax-free savings bonds to encourage families to put away more for college. That idea has its appeal, though chiefly to people who have the income to stash away.

We should now expect some useful clarifications from the two candidates about their respective approaches. That, alas, may be too much to hope for as the campaign putt-putts along to its next stop.

We suspect, however, that this particular issue will stick in the minds of many voters. It is related to questions about whether the American dream of wide-open opportunity is fading, since higher education is a gateway to that dream. Are middle-income Americans as tightly squeezed as Dukakis asserts? Should huge obligations - personal college debts and public federal deficits - become the American way?

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