Message to Ridge: Help trim college cost



By RONNIE POLANECZKY
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Last week, anonymous colleagues of Tom Ridge told the Associated Press he hoped to leave his Homeland Security gig after the November election because, among other reasons, he needed to earn college-tuition money for his two teenage kids.
The guy makes $175,700 a year.
I'm sorry, but if someone like Ridge (who wouldn't confirm or deny the AP story) can't afford college tuition, there's no hope for parents who make much less than the ex-Pennsylvania governor does.
Which would be most of us.
We're in trouble, and we didn't need Ridge's example to figure that out.
College costs are taking a bigger chomp out of family income than ever before. And more students at all income levels are borrowing, and borrowing more, than they ever have to pay for college, whether public or private. That's because federal and state grants haven't kept pace with increases in tuition.
I'm not making this up. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has been tracking these trends for years.
Irony in timing
Including this trend: Tuition at most state schools actually increases during a recession -- because governments have to slash funding to balance their budgets -- which is precisely when families are least able to bridge the gap.
I could just cry, and my kid is only 7. So imagine the wrecks it's making of teenagers' parents -- even, maybe, well-paid suits like Ridge.
"Parents of poor students are being totally shut out, and middle-class parents are in a panic," says the national center's president, Pat Callan.
"Students are graduating school with heavy debt, and then making career choices based on what they owe. We hear them say they don't want to go into teaching, for example, because they'll still be paying back their loans when their grandchildren go to college."
Of course, you can always find someone who'll say we're all just whining.
"Colleges and universities aren't in the position of supporting a family's lifestyle, nor should they be," by keeping costs low, says Gary Musler of FinancialAidSuperSite.com, an online service that puts college financial-aid packages together for parents.
"It's incumbent on parents to plan well for college, because we live in a capitalist society where higher education is a privilege, not a right."
Baloney.
Getting a college degree has long ceased being a "privilege" and instead has become an absolute necessity if our kids are to have even half a shot at a decent life.
It's not just that employers in this country have gone elitist, requiring degrees from job-seekers applying for even the most un-academic of positions -- like receptionist, for example, where what matters more is training.
It's also that America has lost the well-paying blue-collar jobs that used to let us raise our families with dignity.
And if you think the college-cost crisis is bad now, imagine the collective, sticker-shock shriek we'll hear as aging baby boomers see how much a degree for their kids will set them back.
A wish for Ridge
So here's what I wish.
I wish that Tom Ridge -- a man who was so well-regarded as a governor that he was a vice presidential contender -- would use his political connections to make fixing this problem the crowning achievement of his impressive career as a public servant.
He can start by whispering in the ear of the most powerful man in the world -- his boss -- that, when it comes to education, we have to do more than leave no child behind.
We can't leave their older brothers and sisters behind, either. Or their struggling families, who are sacrificing everything they have to help their sons and daughters have even a smidgen of the kind of life George W. Bush's daughters have enjoyed, thanks to having been born rich.
We need more and better federal college-tuition grants. Substantial tax breaks for families with kids in college. Incentives for colleges and universities to make higher education affordable to all families.
We need discrimination sanctions against employers who require degrees when none are really needed. And we need more well-paying jobs that don't require a college degree.
Tom Ridge is the perfect guy to state this case, whether, come November, it's to George W. Bush or John Kerry. Because if he's actually ready to change careers because of this issue, Ridge can make his argument with the conviction that comes from feeling pain in a very scary place: His wallet.
X Ronnie Polaneczky is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. Bertram de Souza's column will return next week.

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