Diploma Power

SOMETIMES Labor Secretary Robert Reich can sound more like the secretary of education. As befits a former Harvard professor, he regularly preaches the connection between learning and earning.

Fifteen years ago, he likes to point out, a male college graduate earned 49 percent more than a high school graduate. But by 1992 that college graduate was being paid 83 percent more. This gap is certain to grow even wider, according to Mr. Reich, who argues, ``As increasingly capable machines join ever more Americans at the workplace - join them both as co-workers and as competitors - the payoff to education and training has soared, and the penalty for lacking skills has stiffened.''

All well and good. But the costs of a college education continue to soar at a rate rivaled only by the cost of health care. A baby born today will pay about $360,000 to complete an Ivy League education as a member of the Class of 2015. Who is going to pay this mega-bill in order to acquire the white-collar worker's union card, also known as a college degree? Students are contributing more and more to their own education. But the primary burden still falls on Mom and Dad.

Or does it? Middle-class parents, trying to fund their 401(k) pension plans while setting aside money for the astronomical tuition charges of the 21st century, will hardly be able to afford the full cost of a college education. Yet if Reich's prognosis is correct, they cannot afford not to.

Colleges themselves are helping out with an increasing number and variety of grants and scholarships. The government continues to underwrite loans. But the expanding cost of education calls for an expanding list of support systems. For example, a tax break for parents temporarily impoverished by tuitions should be considered again. Then there is the private sector. American businesses need to do more to educate their employees. Without a better-qualified work force, all the talk of being ``competitive'' is just talk.

Despite the cost - or because of it - every private and public resource should be pooled to make higher education a right as well as a privilege. That must be the ultimate economic strategy. But price tags and payoffs are not the whole story. As Reich might be the first to say, the goal of a college education is to develop not the earning power but the full humanity of a student, a reward that can never be measured in dollars and cents.

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