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Editorial: Skyrocketing college costs jump to top of agenda

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Two candidates for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Marco Rubio, are doing the nation a potentially great service by pushing to the top of the agenda the problem of the runaway cost of a college education.

Clinton, campaigning for the Democratic nomination, and Rubio, running in the Republican primary, are proposing very different solutions. Clinton is calling for big federal spending — $350 billion over ten years — while Rubio is calling for more free-market competition.

What matters most is that both candidates, though they stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum, recognize the crisis is real. And, among all the candidates, they appear to be offering particularly specific and creative solutions. Would it be too much to ask that every candidate — and every pundit — take the same thoughtful approach and eschew the usual polemics?

EDITORIAL

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The crisis of college costs is undeniable. Since 2004, tuition and fees for in-state residents at public colleges nationwide have increased 40 percent, after adjusting for inflation, reports the New York Times. But since 2008, state funding for higher education has dropped by 20 percent.

Freshmen this fall at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana will pay $12,036 per year — 71 percent more than the $7,042 charged just a decade ago. The annual total, including housing, falls just short of $26,000.

It should come as no surprise, then, that outstanding student loan debt nationwide now tops $1.2 trillion.

Clinton’s plan has a feel of Obamacare about it, with Washington doling out money to states that guarantee students won’t have to take out loans to attend four-year public college and universities. Money also would go toward lowering interest rates on student loans at public or private colleges.

Rubio calls for blowing up the “cartel” of existing colleges and universities that, he says, control the accreditation process to block innovative, low-cost competitors from entering the market. He would require colleges to tell students how much they can expect to earn with a certain degree before they take out loans and sign up for class. He would allow borrowers to repay student loans based on their income — the more they make, the faster they pay back.  And he would create “Student Investment Plans,” under which investors could pick up a student’s tuition in exchange for a part of the student’s earnings for a few years after college.

What could go wrong? Plenty. Critics of Clinton’s plan to put more government money behind student loans say that just drives up tuition levels. And deregulating the college accreditation process, as Rubio essential proposes, could lead to a boom in the kind of fly-by-night schools that already exploit too many young people.

Nobody has a corner on the best ideas, but this debate is way overdue. Let’s hear more.

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