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College and Debt

WITH tuitions climbing and family incomes leveling off, college students and their parents face mounting debt loads. Last year they borrowed $23.1 billion, almost three times as much as a decade earlier. Now Congress is about to tighten the valve on federal student loans as part of its push to balance the federal budget in seven years.

Are college doors swinging shut on millions of low- and moderate-income Americans?

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Probably not, for two reasons. First, a college education has become indispensable to such a wide swath of Americans that they'll find a way to finance it, even if it means major sacrifices in other areas of life. Second, colleges and universities have proven adept at rejuggling their financial resources to accommodate students who can't pay full fare, and a cut in federal monies should spur more financial adaptation.

That said, the pending congressional action - which could draw a presidential veto - would have an impact on students, parents, and schools. It appears that much of the $10 billion that Republicans hope to take out of the $25 billion-a-year student loan program over the next seven years will come from the removal of interest exemptions for graduates and undergraduates and from upward adjustment of interest-rate caps. That would mean, at the least, adding more heft to the debt burden.

It could also cause some students to reconsider plans to extend their educations. Many such students would be from poorer families that have only recently seen college as an option, largely because of government aid. Should this become a sizable trend, concerns about a drooping level of education among Americans, and hence drooping international competitiveness, could deepen.

The college debt situation calls for action. But the response has to extend beyond the halls of Congress, which should carefully weigh the long-term effects of sharply cutting student aid.

Colleges and universities, too, have a responsibility to ferret out inefficiencies in their operations, review staffing and tenure policies, and slow or even reverse rises in costs and tuitions. Universities should continue their efforts to extend their reach, and hold down costs for students, by opening urban branches. States should reassess their higher-education spending and see how they might pick up some of the aid. Businesses can do more to fund scholarship programs.

Not least, families have to be honest about the need for long-range planning. In this regard, some states have launched programs to help families pay, at today's prices, tuitions for children who are still years away from college. One good option for many students is the junior, or community, college, which they can attend for a fraction of the cost.

The budget-cutting in Congress is being done in the name of future generations - who would presumably have an even larger debt to pay off if federal deficit spending went unchecked. That rationale goes down harder when the cuts come out of other investments in the future, such as higher education. It becomes unpalatable if legislators doing the cutting are also protecting pet, pork-barrel projects. But some squeezing back of a program the size of federal student aid is not unreasonable.

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If schools, government, and families do their part, this doesn't have to mean a retreat from the historical process of making college accessible to a broader spectrum of Americans.

Are college doors swinging shut on low- and moderate-income Americans?

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