Breaking the Tuition Barrier

RECENT figures from the College Board show continued rises in the price of attending college, with public institutions of learning registering two-figure increases in tuition for the first time in eight years. Tuition and fees at a public four-year school now average $2,137 a year. At private colleges the average is $10,017.Does this mean the path toward a degree is blocked for many young Americans? For many students and their families the barriers may be more apparent than real. The much publicized tuitions at prestigious universities are intimidating. The price can be so high that college seems hardly worth pursuing. But in fact a lot of creative thinking is under way in financial-aid offices, and a lot of schools are anxious to keep their classrooms occupied as the number of college-age Americans dwindles. Private schools are concerned about maintaining diversity in their student bodies. To do that, some make admission "need blind," then work out with students and their families feasible financial-aid arrangements. To open the door for mid-income families that can't fund a college education out of pocket, some lawmakers in Washington and some school administrators favor a program that would allow students to pay loans back gradually over the period of their working life, with payments collected by the Internal Revenue Service through paycheck withholding. The amount of payment would be gauged to a graduate's income. This "income-contingent" approach hasn't caught on with students as yet, according to the US Department of Education. But it may be given a boost by the Senate version of the higher education act now before Congress. Those who benefit most from an education - the students themselves - should expect to shoulder some of the long-term responsibility for paying. But society as a whole also benefits from well-educated citizens. Publicly funded grants and loans are critical to assure that children from families with modest means can attend college. And the bureaucracy involved in getting such aid should be greatly simplified. Public higher education, of course, comes with a big subsidy from the states. But state governments are going through a fiscal wringer because of the recession. Public colleges and universities face deep cuts in both operating and student-aid budgets. Steeper tuitions are one way of making up for shortfalls. As a result, some people from moderate- and low-income homes who might have tried for a state university, or perhaps a less expensive private school, are now opting for two-year public institutions. The danger is that academically qualified young people may not have the opportunity to fully develop their intellectual skills - right when the need for a better-educated work force is acute. More Americans than ever are pursuing their educations beyond high school. That long-term trend is in the right direction; both private and public efforts are required to sustain it.

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