Costly Colleges

STUDIES of education have become a cottage industry of education itself. Now still another commission has been formed to learn more about this business of learning.

This time the question before the academic and business leaders appointed by the Council for Aid to Education is notably urgent: Why has there been such a decline in financial support for higher education just at the time when the public is demanding more from colleges and universities?

The commission will proceed from data provided by a preliminary report, indicating that federal appropriations for full-time college students dropped by 9 percent between 1980 and 1993, while state aid declined by 13 percent between 1986 and 1992. State and federal officials are cutting education budgets with the thought that private scholarship donors will close the gap; consider the proposal by Gov. William Weld (R) of Massachusetts to cut state funding for public higher education with the expectation that private money will be forthcoming.

At a time when it has become clear that more than a high school education will be required to qualify for decent jobs, the news that fewer young people will be able to afford college seems doubly dismaying.

The preliminary report predicts that if the commission - or somebody - cannot come up with a solution, an undemocratic polarization will result. Only the children of the rich will be able to attend the choicer colleges and universities. Poorer students, however gifted, will end up mostly in vocational schools and community colleges.

The rich have always had certain advantages in education as elsewhere; this preliminary report suggests that the exclusion of the less affluent from higher education stands to get worse.

President Clinton has revived the familiar proposal to make college tuition tax-deductible. Some experts have suggested that ``education investment banks'' should be created to collect and distribute public and private resources to worthy colleges and worthy students. This is a beginning, and the commission just by its existence can keep feet to the fire. But raising the money necessary will test the ingenuity and persistence of everybody concerned, from the White House down, at a time when government and corporate funds are tight.

The high cost of tuition is nothing compared with the cost society will pay if the best possible education is not made available to all Americans - rich or poor - who can profit from it.

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