AFTER a month of campaigning complacently on such vague themes as "good jobs at good wages," Michael S. Dukakis earlier this month unveilied a specific and comprehensive plan designed to help lower-and middle-income students pay for a college education.
The Student Tuition and Repayment System (STARS) that Dukakis proposes would give low-interest loans to any student who needs them. Banks would provide the loans, with the federal government guaranteeing them and serving as their collector. Students would pay into a loan fund over their lifetime by having a small percentage of their annual salaries withheld.
The Dukakis loan proposal comes at a critical time. College costs have fast outpaced the growth of family incomes since 1980, and the Reagan Administration has been reluctant to make up the gap. Even with adjustments for inflation, federal student aid has fallen by 6 percent during this period and has been increasingly concentrated in the form of loans rather than grants, forcing more middle-income students and families to take on oppressive debt burdens. As a result, default rates have skyrocketed to record levels.
The proposed program has several advantages over the existing Stafford Student Loans, as the former Guaranteed Student Loan program is now called. Since repayments are directly taken from one's earnings, like Social Security deductions or income tax withholding, default is rendered virtually impossible.
SINCE students who take higher-income jobs end up subsidizing those who have lower-paying ones, Bush campaign officials were quick to charge that this program is inherently unfair. Yet such deeply entrenched federal programs as Social Security and the federal income tax operate on this same principle, namely that those who can afford to pay more should do so to ensure the solvency of the program.
Even for all the vice president's talk about his desire to be the education president, his only major education proposal--tax breaks for parents who buy savings bonds to finance their children's college education--is far more modest than the Dukakis plan. The STARS program, higher education officials agree, is much more likely to address the growing middle-class squeeze which occurs when students cannot afford rising tuition costs, but fail to qualify for federal grants. Combined with Dukakis's pledge to increase federal grants for lowincome students, the STARS program represents a welcome relief to students fearful of rising tuitions and the scarcity of federal grants.
Too often in the past, presidential candidates have tried to sway voters by proclaiming their support for education and then have failed to provide any leadership on such important issues as accelerating tuitions, the middle class squeeze, and the disturbing shift from grants to loans by the federal government during the last seven years. Though the final details of the STARS program still have to be fully worked out, the concept is a sound one: that access to a college education should not be determined by one's financial status.