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College shouldn't be so expensive

Figuring out how to make college more affordable may be one of the biggest challenges facing America. A well-educated workforce is good for the entire country, so why should it cost families so much?

President Obama addressed the issue this week in an unprecedented private meeting with a small group of college presidents. While the summit was significant, it doesn't replace the open discussion needed to curb tuition rates, which consistently outpace inflation even as the ranks of millionaire college presidents grow.

The number of private-college presidents paid at least $1 million rose from 33 to 36 in 2009, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Topping the list at $4.9 million was Constantine Papadakis, the late president of Drexel University, but most of that compensation was life insurance and benefits paid to his widow.

A case may be made for some salaries, in particular when a president's duties go beyond those of even the CEO of a large corporation. For example, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann's salary of $1.3 million puts her in the Top 20, but she has played a pivotal role in the development of West Philadelphia in coordination with Penn's expansion.

The high cost of a college education, though, goes well beyond what university presidents are paid. Students across the nation have staged protests against their rising tuition costs.

Many worthy high school students are so discouraged by the possibility of going into debt that they aren't even considering college. Others are forced to leave college before earning a diploma.

Nationally, undergraduate tuition and fees averaged $12,804 at public colleges and $32,184 at private institutions. Those costs represent a 37 percent increase at the public schools and 25 percent at their private counterparts over a 10-year period.

And how are students paying their college bills? Mostly, with high-interest loans, which is why college graduates today leave school owing an average of $25,000 or more. Student-loan debt is expected to hit $1 trillion this year, which for the first time will push it above credit-card debt.

Merit-based state scholarships have grown in popularity to help students pay for college. But with the states struggling in this economy, those programs have a hard time surviving budget cuts.

A number of private schools with big endowments are doing more to shoulder students' financial burden by lowering tuition and providing more grants and scholarships. But more schools need to step up. America's children are told a good education is the key to success. Access to that key shouldn't be so hard.