New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney's commission on college affordability is a good idea, but he should broaden its scope to a complete rethinking of college financing.
Even though costs at public colleges are growing by the lowest rates in 30 years, they're still rising too fast. At the same time, student aid has failed to keep up, according to a recent College Board study, compounding the actual costs for students and their families.
That's one reason the nation's student debt has reached a shocking $1.3 trillion. The cost of college has well outpaced the ability of students and their families to afford it.
"The great equalizer in education is becoming harder and harder for poor and middle-class kids to have," said Sweeney (D., Gloucester). He and Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D., Cumberland) plan to study the popular "Pay It Forward" proposal originally suggested by a Seattle think tank, the Economic Opportunity Institute. The still-theoretical system would defer tuition and have students pay it off with a percentage of their incomes over several years. In Oregon, the first state to study the idea, the expectation is that a graduate would pay 3 percent of his or her income for 24 years.
On its face, the system seems to make sense. But the model assumes that only college graduates benefit from college education. Aren't doctors, teachers, accountants, and other college graduates good for society as a whole?
One discrete group should not have to shoulder most of the burden for something that benefits so many. Ultimately, a more educated workforce makes for a stronger economy. That gives states a compelling reason to support higher education, and it makes out-of-control college costs everyone's problem.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to lower costs. President Obama's College Scorecard, which shows institutions' yearly costs, graduation rates, and other consumer information, is a good start on pressuring them to become more efficient.
But colleges have to do more. They shouldn't be building fancy new dorms and lavish lounges, for example. Those facilities may attract students, but college isn't a vacation. It's hard work, and it's gotten a lot harder for recent graduates who have found crushing disappointment in the job market.
Today's graduates are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than those of previous generations. No wonder college loan default rates are increasing so rapidly.
A stronger economy can be built around the development of intellectual assets. Amid tremendous economic change, the state and federal governments should be working to make college more affordable and available. That means increasing student aid as well as oversight so that colleges don't just raise tuition to cash in on government help.
College shouldn't be out of reach for anyone willing to put in the effort. New Jersey, with one of the nation's most educated populaces, can lead the way toward solving this national problem.