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WITH the announcement that their tuition will increase by 6.7 percent, Harvard undergraduates can expect to owe the University more than $20,000 in tuition and fees next year. This marks the 10th consecutive year in which the cost of a Harvard education has surpassed the rate of inflation.
To get an idea of how much money we're talking about, consider that a full-time worker making three times the minimum wage could pay for a year at Harvard--with less than $250 to spare. The cost of attending Harvard next year will exceed the non-capital-gains income of more than 37 percent of all American families.
If it were ever possible to doubt that the cost of a college education posed a prohibitive class barrier, those doubts should be dispelled now. In fact, as a percentage of the median family's household earnings, a Harvard education costs more now than it did 20 years ago, 25 years ago, even 50 years ago! So much for progress.
Despite Harvard's boast that it provides for 100 percent of estimated financial need, Harvard's estimates often differ wildly from the estimates of a student facing a four-year bill in excess of $80,000, especially when accepting a financial aid package can mean saddling one's self with a student-loan debt of more than $10,000.
Like Harvard, colleges nationwide have seen their tuitions spiral skyward. During the 1970s, the average cost of attending a private college more than doubled--not surprising given the inflationary tenor of the times. But between 1980 and 1988, the average cost more than doubled again. And unlike Harvard, most colleges make no pretense of being able to offer an education to students of every economic standing.
Even as college becomes more prohibitive, it becomes ever more necessary for success in the labor market. In 1988, high school graduates earned 59 percent the wages and salaries of their college educated counterparts.
BEFORE economic opportunities in the U.S. become even further bifurcated between those who can afford college and those who cannot, Congress should fundamentally restructure how college education is paid for. Attending college, like attending elementary school, should be made a right of citizenship.
One way to accomplish this would be a gigantic expansion of federal higher education grants. It would also be the worst possible way. If the U.S. governement gave colleges a carte blanche for their services, it would do to higher education what Medicare did for health care--send the price through the roof--while further inflating the already ballooning budget deficit.
A far better way is to make all students--regardless of income--eligible for a program in which they would attend the college of their choice, and then have a fixed percentage of their incomes deducted from their paychecks throughout their working lives.
Gov. Michael S. Dukakis proposed just such a program, the Student Tuition and Repayment System (STARS), during the 1988 presidential campaign. Dukakis' plan involved deducting a standardized percentage from participants' paychecks for an extended period following their graduation and entry into the work force. Thus, those who took high-paying jobs would end up subsidizing those who with lower incomes.
The chief problem with STARS is that it would unfairly penalize students who chose to attend less expensive schools, because the repayment would not be based on the cost of the school attended. The percentage deduction should be higher for those who choose higher-priced schools, thus preserving the market incentive for colleges to control costs.
The program should be structured such that the revenue collected would be sufficient to absorb the cost of the program. Better yet, the program should operate at an annual loss to the federal government of $11 billion--roughly twice the current amount of federal tuition grants. Such a subsidy to higher education is well-justified on grounds of efficiency as well as fairness, as the social benefit of an educated work force far higher than the cost of the subsidy.
The advantages of this plan are clear:
.Absolutely anyone could afford a college education.
.Default would be virtually impossible, since the payments would be duducted along with income taxes and Social Security taxes.
.The program would impose effective cost controls on colleges, because students would have an incentive to choose cheaper schools.
.Students would take the decision to attend college more seriously, because they would know that their education would be paid for by their own efforts, not by their parents or the government.
The standardized percentage deducted would remove the incentive for debt-laden students to seek high-paying jobs in corporate law and investment banking rather than more socially valuable careers in fields such as teaching, public interest law, government and community service.
A nation that prides itself on equality of opportunity--and a college that prides itself on the social and economic diversity of its student body--should demand nothing less. John L. Larew '91 is editorial chair of The Crimson.
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