Make Public Colleges Free for All Who Qualify

Interest rates on subsidized government student loans are slated to double to 6.8 percent in July. That would add up to $1,000 to the burden of students dependent on loans to help pay for their education.

Not surprisingly, President Barack Obama has called on Congress to sustain the lower rates. When Mitt Romney agreed, House Republicans reversed their previous position and passed the extension. Now, the Senate and House are descending into a nasty debate about how to pay for the extension, not whether to do it. Enough, as the Chicago Sun-Times editorialized; they should fix this and move on.

Keeping interest rates low on student loans is a good thing, but it does not answer the real question: How do we make college or advanced training affordable for the young?

The reality is that soaring college costs are pricing ever more students out of the education they need. Tuition and fees at colleges are rising faster even than medical costs. Students now graduate with an average of $25,000 in loans. Two-thirds of all students rely on loans to help pay for their education. Student debt -- now over $1 trillion -- exceeds credit card debt.

These loans are like a noose around students who are graduating into the worst jobs market since the Great Depression. One in two recent graduates under 25 is in need of full-time work -- unemployed or able only to find part-time work. Wages are still sinking for recent graduates, even as their indebtedness rises.

For many, the student loan burden is crippling. If they can't find work, they can defer payment on their loans, but interest keeps adding up on the unpaid balance. If they find work, they often can't pay the basics -- rent, car loan, health care and student loan. Instead of their education lifting them into the middle class, it too often suffocates hope.

This country can't afford to waste a generation. High-quality public education has been central to our success. We led the world in providing K-12 public education. With the GI Bill after World War II, we offered an entire generation free access to college or advanced training. The result was the best-educated work force in the world, which helped build the American middle class.

All now agree that college or advanced training is more important than ever, yet we are making it less and less affordable. College tuition is soaring because the state contribution to budgets is being slashed. We're privatizing public colleges piecemeal by putting more and more of the costs on the students.

We should go the other way. Invest the money needed -- an estimated $30 billion a year -- to make public colleges free for all who qualify. Let all children know that if they can get the education, then they earn. Last week, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, offered this advice to college students: "Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business."

He doesn't get it. Fewer and fewer families can afford to finance college for their kids.

Conservatives argue that making college free would just encourage idleness among the young and, anyway, we can't afford it. Those were the same arguments that were made against the GI Bill. We can afford it -- the cost is far less than the 20 percent cut in top tax rates that Romney champions. In fact, we can't afford not to do it.

If the American dream is to stay alive, the young must have access to the best education in the world. We will all pay the price if we don't provide it for them.