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The President should attack out-of-control college costs

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Seeking a reprieve from Republicans, Edward Snowden and the website that couldn't, President Obama and the first lady held a feel-good event to push the issue of expanding college opportunity. There were lots of smiles, bucket-loads of remarks on heavy policy lifts and the sense that the White House would do its best to guarantee no child—at least none of those lucky enough to graduate from high school—would be left behind.

"We've got philanthropists and business leaders here, we've got leaders of innovative non-for-profits, we've got college presidents—from state universities and historically black colleges to Ivy League universities and community colleges," said the president. "More than 100 colleges and 40 organizations are announcing new commitments to help more young people not only go to but graduate from college."

Yet, despite the presence of the nation's higher-education apparatus, the most important word of the nearly 45-minute conversation was mentioned only once: tuition.

While "rising tuition" definitely received the split-second plug it should have, there was a strange skip-over as if it was not the leading reason Americans give for not attending college. At least that's what 62 percent agree is the most significant barrier to a degree, according to a 2013 HuffPost-YouGov poll. Even in the Obamas' home state, an Illinois Student Assistance Commission survey found that 79 percent of high school counselors cited financial constraints as the leading reason many college-ready seniors were not heading to college. And the White House's own Middle Class Task Force's "Barriers to Higher Education" report highlighted concerns over costs as a major barrier for middle-class and lower-income families.

Of course, right? After all, college-tuition increases since 2000 have surpassed the rate of inflation. The College Board pegs annual increases at 5.4 percent. And students can't turn to public universities for relief anymore, since state funding per pupil dropped 21 percent in the last decade, with total public funding for higher education falling nearly 15 percent.

Last summer, Congress could have attacked the issue of ridiculously high tuition. Yet, it chose to focus on a somewhat silly, beside-the-point debate on student-loan interest rates. Lowering the rates sounds fine—whatever keeps you happy. But, having a conversation about interest rates doesn't exactly solve the increasingly unsustainable higher-education cost model that everyone seems to accept as normal. Student loans may not even be an issue if someone would just get the tuition under control.

We all simply accept it as the sacrifice needed in pursuit of the picket fence, two cars and single-family home. You won't find students shutting down their college campuses or staging sit-ins on this issue. You might, however, find some breaking down in tears and begging for mercy at the bursar's office. Something is wrong if we're not seriously addressing the root cause behind so many potentially promising young people being actively shut out of higher-education opportunities.

With leading figures in the college community present for the momentous rollout of White House education initiatives, it was a perfect opportunity for head-cracking on rising tuition. But the president, not unlike most lawmakers these days, chose to barely nibble around the issue.

Let's give a little credit to the White House. They did spend a decent share of time discussing incentives to increase minority admissions. That's a worthwhile goal, especially if we consider that "82 percent of new white enrollments have gone to the 468 most selective colleges, while 72 percent of new Hispanic enrollment and 68 percent of new African-American enrollment have gone to the two-year and four-year open-access schools," according to a Georgetown University study.

Still, who hasn't mentioned the need for diversity on college campuses? For the most part, there's emerging consensus on that problem, although folks disagree on how to resolve it.

The more pressing issue for low-income students and families of color is how they pay for higher education—not so much the lack of familiar faces or the presence of culturally tailored student groups on predominantly white campuses. That real plight could have been pressed a little harder by a slightly unscripted president shaming highly paid college presidents over inflated tuition bills.

Lawmakers might argue that there's not much they can do about it. It is what it is, they whisper. Others simply shrug and leave it to free-market principles that dictate the cost of goods and services. Yet, we all know that at some point, this situation will reach a very painful breaking point. Financial aid, experts agree, just can't keep up with tuition that's reaching altitudes as high as space launches.

"The federal government doesn't regulate prices of any goods or services, and it is unlikely that the federal government would start with higher education," notes David A. Bergeron at the Center for American Progress.

That said, Bergeron doesn't think it's a lost cause for government to start trying. "The federal government could place limits on the amount that students could receive in aid for institutions that raise tuition above inflation," he adds. "It could provide incentives to institutions to take steps to lower their cost in delivering education by encouraging use of online courses to deliver entry-level course content, and sharing facilities and resources with other institutions."

The Obama administration and Congress, however, have chosen to pat themselves on the backs with tepid interest-rate reductions. The White House unveiled its college-opportunity initiative as if some big breakthrough had occurred. Let's get it straight, though: It didn't.

Where exactly was that more urgent conversation on ridiculous college-tuition costs? Now in his second term and with no need to campaign, the president could have easily gone bold. Scratching the surface with platitudes about student motivation conveniently avoids taking the higher-education community to task on the actual cost of tuition. Why must they keep raising tuition? How can students really succeed if they're more worried about financing their next semester than passing the next midterm?

(Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.)

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