Their View: Leaders needed to solve the tuition problem

The following editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Too many American families cannot afford the ever-rising cost of college and the staggering level of debt they’ll face in trying to pay for it.

Over the past three decades, tuition increases not only have eclipsed inflation, but they’ve outpaced price hikes in other sectors of the economy, even health care. From 1978 to 2013, when medical spending rose by 600 percent, tuition jumped nearly twice as much, by 1,120 percent.

The pressure on families is compounded by the fact that states have curtailed their support for public universities. Some federal student aid programs also have been cut. As a result, the average college senior carries $25,000 in loans and one in five households is paying student debt.

College educations have become so expensive that a diploma, the most important step on the ladder of opportunity, could become out of reach for too many families.

Plenty of reasons are to blame for this crisis, many the result of decisions made on campuses. Colleges and universities are employing more provosts, deans and administrators, according to the Education Policy Program at the New American Foundation. They have built ever-more elaborate dormitories, food courts, libraries and recreation centers in a bidding war for students. Many schools have failed to adjust to enrollment trends — for instance, just 27 percent of the nation’s 18 million undergraduates are fresh out of high school and enrolled full-time in four-year programs.

No one solution can address this. A broad approach is essential, and the federal government, which already provides significant resources to universities for research, job-training programs and student aid, must lead the effort to rein in costs.

Success stories already dot the landscape and could be replicated. In Tennessee, for instance, rather than using enrollments to determine public funding, a formula that rewards institutions when students make appropriate progress and complete their degrees is used. Some companies are paying colleges to create the educational programs necessary to fill jobs they require, a tactic that could be expanded.

The government, state and federal, may need to provide incentives for programs that meet the needs of adult learners, increase the number of online courses, expand work-study programs and improve coordination between institutions so students don’t have to repeat costly classes if they transfer. These are just some of the measures that may help.

In a world spinning with new technology and global competition, Americans are seeking political leaders who can find a broad-based solution to make a college education more affordable and post-college debt more bearable. The 2016 presidential campaign is the perfect place for them to step forward. Let the debate begin.