Higher and Higher Education

NO consumers are more entitled to groan over a price tag than parents paying for college tuition. For them, p.c. spells, not "politically correct" but "prohibitive costs."

Students at Harvard or MIT face annual bills of $24,000. And in state-run colleges across the country, tuitions have risen almost 25 percent during the past two years. In California, whose system, once a model, serves more than 2 million students, fees rose 85 percent in three years. More than 4,500 classes had to be canceled to save money.

What makes college education the most inflationary item in the American consumer's budget, next to health care? Columbia University cites health care itself as the number one problem. Health-care costs at the Ivy League college have risen 361 percent during the past eight years. Older colleges like Yale are rebuilding crumbling walls and slashing staff as well as raising tuition to do it. The cost of maintaining a state-of-the-art research center escalates every year. The salaries of big-name academics w ould make the Mr. Chipses of earlier generations gasp.

The Economist magazine concludes that the '90s must be "the toughest decade in academia since the Great Depression." Yet as both colleges and their customers wring their impoverished hands, education has become more and more the keystone hope of an America seeking revival. Every problem, from crime in the street to the trade deficit, could be solved by more and better education - this has become a national credo at the very moment education itself has become a problem on the list.

Bill Clinton will have to become the "Education President" for real. His campaign proposals for loans that could be repaid by national service after graduation or through a percentage of income offer possible forms of relief. Other solutions must come from schools themselves. At the University of Maryland, 15 percent of the $2.4 million the College Park campus expects to receive from tuition increases next spring will be used for financial aid.

One thing all parties can agree on: From kindergarten to graduate school, the nation's intellectual infrastructure demands attention even more urgently than the infrastructure of roads and bridges.

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