The statistics are discouraging, if not staggering. Since 1980, the expense of attending a public college has risen 211 percent; 242 percent for a private institution. Overall, the cost of attending US colleges and universities is growing at three times the rate of inflation. Undergraduates typically leave $10,000 in debt; graduate students, $65,000 in debt.
Little wonder that many educators are cautiously optimistic about President Clinton's proposal this week to spend more on education. The program would include tax deductions of up to $10,000 a year for college tuition or job training and tuition tax credits, by which the government would refund up to $1,500 a year for the first two years of college.
Relief, clearly, is needed. To many college freshmen, the financial future looks daunting. A survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that more freshmen than ever are worried about financing their educations. Of the 251,323 surveyed, two-thirds said they are at least somewhat concerned they won't have enough money to finish college. More than a quarter rely on federally guaranteed loans. A third cited low tuition and financial assistance as a "very important" reason for choosing a school; in 1976, 13.6 percent said the same.
Concerns about paying for college are at least partially reflected in the record number - 30 percent - of students who said they frequently feel overwhelmed by all they have to do.
These students likely will continue to shoulder an increasing share of the burden of paying for college themselves. But, as Mr. Clinton has acknowledged, they'll also need more help. From the government, through expanded and more efficient student-loan programs, work-study programs, merit scholarships, and federal grants. From businesses, by developing programs to help young employees pay back loans. And, of course, from parents, with help from tax credits.
Schools, for their part, should continue efforts to put a cap on tuition increases. According to a recent Monitor article, tuition, room, and board at Princeton University is $28,325 this year. That's steep, but the university managed to keep its tuition hike below 5 percent, the smallest increase in 30 years. A small but hopeful step.
The country needs to face the implications of escalating college costs at a time when higher education is considered, more than ever, the prerequisite for a productive work life. Public and private resources need to be pooled so that future freshmen can feel less overwhelmed with what it costs to get an education. Students should be studying, working, volunteering - but not worrying whether they'll have the means to finish school.