Whatever the outcome of President Barack Obama's efforts to keep the 3.4 percent interest rate on college loans from doubling July 1, it is clear that the system badly needs a new approach.
Keeping the current rate is about the only thing the president and his presumptive Republican opponent in November, Mitt Romney, seem to agree is necessary. For both candidates, it is merely a matter of practical politics.
For Romney, opposition to the status quo would further aggravate the youth vote where he already is trailing Obama badly, according to current polls. For Obama, who has made several college appearances in the last few weeks, it is not only a matter of maintaining that lead among 18- to 24-year-olds, it is also necessary to recapture lost enthusiasm in a demographic notorious for its dilettantes when it comes to voting. The presidential campus appearances reportedly generated far less excitement than buoyed him in his first campaign.
However, the politics of the situation are not the compelling story here. It is, it seems to me, the implications of what failure to somehow come up with a viable, long-range solution to college finance ultimately will mean. Without that, the statistics that are already horrible will only get worse and the real result will be fewer college graduates to meet the nation's needs.
The average college debt is a little over $24,000. Some debts far exceed that, going as high as $100,000, especially among those seeking professional degrees in medicine, dentistry and law. The cost of an undergraduate degree seems to never stop climbing and college administrators are somehow almost helpless to stop it although they realize the increasingly debilitating results. Any major jump in the interest rate would obviously fall heaviest on those in the lower economic classes, depriving them of a way to excel and depriving America of vital assets.
Under the circumstances, many Americans are questioning the value of higher education. Is it worth it? The answer is clearly yes when one measures the financial difference between a high school diploma and a college degree. That amounts to an average $400 a week and an estimated $1 million more in lifetime earnings. Even in these rough employment times, the jobless rate for college grads is about 4.4 percent as compared to more than 11 percent for those without a college education. Part of that difference comes in the decline of the nation's heavy industries -- steel, auto production, agriculture and manufacturing -- which once offered a solid living after high school. Service jobs don't meet the need.
So how do we solve the problem, especially when it comes to family incomes that won't support sending a member off to university?
Jay Moseley, the president of Franklin College, a highly rated 177-year-old liberal arts institution in Indiana, believes the solution may lie in copying to one degree or another the British and Australian methods of paying off the loans through taxation. Using the statistics of greater income for college grads, the Internal Revenue System merely would collect the money through income taxation. The rate would depend on the income of the borrower. If that income fell below the poverty line, he or she would not have to pay until it climbed. After 25 years or so, the remaining debt would be forgiven.
The government cleared the way for this when it took over the federal loan program from private financial institutions a year ago.
Moseley acknowledges the need for institutions to bring their charges into line and Franklin has tried hard to keep its tuition and room and board at a level that can make it still attractive to an economically diverse enrollment. But the pressures for quality faculty and facilities are large. As many schools do, it offers its own loans to qualified students.
Whatever occurs in Congress before the July deadline for raising the interest rate, there should be a general agreement even in this volatile election year that reform is not only needed but is imperative.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.