Putting College Within Reach

DEREK BOK, former president of Harvard University, once said: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." If that's true, then judging by the way our country has been treating access to higher education, money is no object.

That has to change. American children are in trouble. Tuition costs are skyrocketing so high that many children will never receive a college education. Today you either have to be very rich or very poor just to have the means to go to college. Many middle-class children are getting shut out. In most cases, their parents earn just enough so they don't qualify for benefits, but still can't pay exorbitant costs on their own.

In the last decade alone, the price of a college education has increased 157 percent. It's often the case that children from wealthy families don't have to worry about tuition costs, while children from families with very limited means can win scholarships or grants to earn their undergraduate degree. Ironically, middle-class students make up nearly one-third of the college-age population, but receive only 4 percent of available student aid. The tremendous burden of financing an education has cost many y oung people from middle-class families the chance to attain a critical aspect of the American Dream.

If the United States expects to remain a preeminent power in the world, we need to start investing thought and effort in making college accessible to middle-class children.

According to the Department of Education's latest figures (1989-90), the average yearly cost of sending a child to a public university is $4,979, while the average cost for private schools is $12,348. But tuition costs vary significantly by state and by institution, and in many cases, costs are higher. Children who wish to attend an Ivy League school can expect to pay $22,000 or more. Parents with two or more children in college face a financial nightmare.

A well-educated work force is vitally important if we are to compete effectively in the international marketplace. Every day we read and hear that the Japanese are surging ahead in their factories and schools, and every day we see reports that the US falling behind.

It's time that Congress and the president make a national commitment to making higher education an opportunity for everyone. America's ability to produce and compete depends on it. Since 1987, I've been working to get legislation passed to give education tax relief to the middle class. In January, with bipartisan support from Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, I co-introduced a bill to give middle-income taxpayers a choice between a tax credit or deduction, depending on their needs. President Bush include d the education incentive in his State of the Union address. Under our plan, itemizers and non-itemizers would be included. In the past, only itemizers qualified for a benefit, so many more people will be helped under this new bill.

Yes, the recession is hitting our families hard, and federal support for other programs may seem more urgent. But in the end, shortsightedness on this issue will cost our country more tomorrow than giving the middle class the tax break it deserves today. If we want to stay on top internationally, close the trade deficit with Japan, and find better solutions for our problems here at home, then we'd better start investing in the future.

It doesn't take a Harvard education to know there's no better time than the present.

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