It’s time we stopped lying to our kids.

We tell them that they are our future. We encourage them to follow their dreams and work hard to achieve anything they want. We hammer into their heads that the key to improving their lives – the key to achieving their goals and fulfilling their dreams – is education.

And then every chance we get, we let that education slip further and further beyond the reach of young people from all but the most economically privileged families.

Public colleges – denied adequate support by state legislators and anti-tax idelologues – boost tuition and fees to cover the increasing costs of recruiting and retaining faculty and administrators, maintaining and upgrading their physical plant and supplying sprawling facilities with essential services. At competitive private schools, add the cost of battling for prestige, for bequests from alumni and for government research projects – not to mention providing students with upscale amenities befitting their $30,000-and-up annual price tags.

Education-hungry young people with limited resources are left to queue up for grants from underfunded federal and state programs and insufficient school scholarship allotments. They apply for support from community education foundations that are scrambling for donations from the same pool of philanthropists that supports every other worthy cause: hunger, housing, the arts.

And a small percentage of students – whether poorly informed or just desperate – wind up taking commercial loans with exorbitant rates and onerous terms that will dog them long after they’ve earned their degrees and, with luck, found jobs.

If our children really are our future, we must have low expectations.

The topic “higher education, costs of” has drawn the spotlight in recent weeks because the sinking American economy is in the process of pulling colleges and universities down with it. Schools have seen the value of their investment endowments shrink, reducing the amount of annual income they can generate. And public institutions that depend on state government support – virtually all of them – are facing grim prospects.

Three weeks ago, Student Lending Analytics, an online student aid comparison service, conducted what it called a “flash survey” of 357 college financial aid administrators. Almost half of those at public institutions said they were planning reductions in their operating budgets for 2009-2010, possibly as much as 10 percent.

The only really hackable areas of the budget are health care, corrections, social services and education. The first three deal with immediate, pressing needs. Education, as we so frequently proclaim, is about the future – which almost certainly will make it a lower priority.

For hard-pressed low- and middle-income students, in other words, state cutbacks only will delay their quest for a better life and future for themselves and their families.

But while America has been throwing financial roadblocks in young people’s path to a better future, other countries have been clearing the way, the center reported. Korea, Greece, Poland, Ireland, Belgium and Hungary all have greater percentages of their young people in college than the United States. When it comes to 25- to 34-year-olds who have earned associate’s degrees and above, America trails Canada, Japan, Korea, Norway, New Zealand and several others.

Maybe most dispiriting is the effect finances can have on young men and women from low- and middle-income families who have worked hard to meet the entrance requirements of good colleges, often under difficult family and school conditions, only to find that they can’t afford to attend, even after cobbling together all the grants and reasonable loans they can obtain.

According to the College Board’s annual surveys of higher education prices, the average published tuition costs, fees, room and board at public four-year universities climbed from $7,349 in 1977-’78 to $14,317 in 2007-’08, adjusted for inflation. That’s an increase of 95 percent. At private four-year schools, the increase was 123 percent, from $15,289 to $34,136.

Over those same 30 years, the College Board reported, the annual incomes of the poorest 20 percent of American families increased by only 3 percent, while the middle 20 percent of families saw their incomes increase by just 22 percent.

No one can keep up with these kinds of costs.

Yet in a remarkable display of chutzpah, some of the providers of abusive commercial student loans, companies in trouble like the rest of the financial industry, have approached the U.S. Treasury Department asking for a federal bailout.

On Nov. 19, nine nonprofit organizations – including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Consumers Union and the United States Students Association – wrote to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson urging him to exclude exploitive private lenders from eligibility for rescue. “A bailout for the providers of usurious private student loans will not solve the college affordability crisis caused by the failing economy,” they wrote, “and would actually be detrimental to many students and consumers.”

For young Americans struggling to pay mountains of student debt and younger Americans unable to afford college, a bailout for these companies would be an outrageous insult.

My dad, Joe, a first-generation American, revered learning, books and education and dreamed of earning a college degree. He got in one year at Washington University in the 1930s before the Great Depression forced him, with the greatest reluctance, to find work to help support his parents. Years later, he and my mom urged my siblings and me to pursue higher education and made sure finances were not a barrier. Our various graduation ceremonies were proud, joyous moments for our parents.

Joe was as fine a person as ever lived – intelligent, kind, generous, honest, respected and loved. But he never got the education he yearned for, and I think part of him regretted it.

An education is one of life’s joys, good for its own sake. And in a world that moves at the speed of light, it is an essential tool in the pursuit of a decent life and the fulfillment of dreams.

If we aren’t going to make a good education available to every young American with the desire for one and the ability to pursue it, we ought to have the decency to stop lying to them about it.


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