WASHINGTON — Of all the promises Barack Obama made during his campaign, none received more cheers and applause than his vow to make college more affordable and accessible for America's young people.
This was obviously appealing to youths themselves, many of whom now find themselves, such as Barack and Michelle Obama did, burdened with debt when they finish their educations. But equally, it was attractive to parents and grandparents who worry about how the next generations in their families can afford the education that is essential to their future well-being.
A report last week from a commission headed by Jim Hunt, the former governor of North Carolina, underlines how important Obama's pledge is — and how difficult it may be to attain his goals.
Its bottom line: College has become increasingly unaffordable to millions of middle-class and working-class Americans, and the rising barriers to campuses are costing the United States in the international competition for a trained work force.
Here are a couple of the key findings from "Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education," published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education:
Between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees rose three times as fast as median family income, after adjusting for inflation. In the past decade, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of undergraduate borrowers and a doubling in the inflation-adjusted total of students' debts.
The affordability barrier to college is eroding America's standing in the world. Among Americans over 35 and under 64, the United States is second only to Canada in the percentage holding at least two-year degrees. But among those between 25 and 34, we lag not only behind Canada, but Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Ireland, Belgium, Norway, France and Denmark.
In an interview, Hunt warned that the trend threatens the U.S. economic future. It results in part from the stagnation of wages and family incomes in the past decade, and also from the severe inflation of college costs.
With Obama and a Democratic Congress, it is likely that help for students and their families will be on the way — to the extent that budget limitations and the need for big economic stimulus packages allow.
But Hunt's message to those now sitting in the governors' chairs, as he did for so long, is that higher ed must become their priority as well.
"We've gone through three stages," he told me. "First, states focused on K-12 and developed a standards-based approach to improving the performance of elementary and secondary schools. Then we turned to early childhood education and worked on universal kindergarten and pre-K programs. The next focus has to be on the colleges."
With state budgets already under duress because of slumping revenues and rising Medicaid costs, Hunt said he realizes that it will be difficult this year to protect higher education's funding, let alone increase spending.
But he said the report makes a powerful argument that the worst thing to do is to continue to raise tuition and fees, putting college beyond the reach of more and more families.
"We have to look at productivity measures for college faculties," he said. "The course load may have to increase for some professors."
That will not be popular with some of my friends at the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia. But when autoworkers are giving up some of their unemployment and health care benefits, academics may have to sacrifice as well.
As Obama clearly recognizes, the education of the next generation is not something that can be squandered, if this nation is to have a decent future.
David Broder's e-mail address is davidbroder@ washpost.com.
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