GOP out of touch on college costs

It’s the polling story my college roommates and I have retold for, dare I say it, decades. Interviewers for the student newspaper knocked on our door asking, among other questions, “It’s estimated that in four years it will cost $10,000 a year to come here. Would you still come?” We guffawed. “If it costs that much, no one would come here,” we retorted in unison.

Today, Princeton costs about $55,000 a year and turns away more than 92 percent of applicants (meaning none of my triple would actually have gotten in now). But Princeton offers grants that need not be repaid, even to students whose family income exceeds $200,000 a year. In fact, families in the top 1 percent could qualify for nearly $20,000 a year in grants. Most tuitions aren’t that high. But most families aren’t that rich — and neither are most universities.

For most Americans, college costs represent a crushing burden. The average tab at a private four-year institution is almost $37,000 a year, while at state schools it exceeds $16,000 a year. With median family income barely cracking $50,000, that’s a hefty bill. And costs are rising. In California, the price of a four-year state university skyrocketed by more than 20 percent last year.

For the good of their children, and our country, most families feel compelled to pay the bill, as 94 percent of parents expect to send their children to college. The Pew Research Center also found the public correctly estimating that the wage differential between those with and without a college degree is $20,000 a year — not to mention a host of noneconomic benefits accruing to those with higher educational attainment.

However, rising costs and stagnant incomes put college costs out of reach for more and more Americans. Three-quarters acknowledge most Americans can’t afford college. Our own polls find college affordability one of the greatest concerns of the largest number of Americans in state after state.

As a result, more and more families borrow money for college, digging themselves deeper in the hole. The number of families owing money on college loans increased by over 50 percent since 1989, and the amount they owe has more than doubled, even after accounting for inflation. Today, over two-thirds of graduates leave college with debt that averages over $25,000, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Enter the Republicans. Ever anxious to be seen as insensitive to the economic needs of the middle class, the uncompromising extremists who dominate the GOP are now fighting to let interest on student loans double, increasing the cost by over $4,000 for those who graduate.

Mitt Romney’s advice? “Shop around.” He’s right. His alma mater, Harvard, will cut you an even better deal than mine. But for the 99.999 percent of students not attending Harvard, Princeton or the like, the Republican position is a kick in the teeth and a big bite in the wallet.

As with the payroll tax cut and Medicare, the GOP is dead set on taking money out of the pockets of middle-class Americans. It’s almost guaranteed to reignite enthusiasm on campuses and solidify the support President Obama enjoyed from young people four years ago.

But these kids also have parents, and in most cases when the paycheck won’t cover both rent and loan repayments, it’s parents who get a call. They won’t be happy.

In fairness, desperate to avoid another debacle, Republicans modified their strategy a bit. “We’re for it,” they now say, “we just want to pay for it from a different pot of money.” The GOP insists we hold down student loan costs by reducing the number of mammograms, childhood immunizations and treatment for diabetes.

You can’t hope to prevent cancer and pay for a college education, Republicans claim. Wrong again.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.