Government Spending

Costly Education

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There's always something to worry about—and for the government to spend more money on. The cost of college is never far down the list.

Back in January, the Lumina Foundation, which is spending a wad of cash kicked off from the student loan business, announced that Americans enjoy unequal access to higher education, since the wealthy can more easily afford to pay full freight. And last week the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education delivered a study that shows that the cost of public colleges and universities has gone up over the last 20 years.

Yet if higher education is becoming unaffordable, someone has forgotten to tell students, who've increased from 8.6 million in 1970 to 14.5 million in 1998. Maybe this is because even as the sticker price of a college degree has increased, the returns to claiming one have shot up as well. It's not as if governments have been neglecting the issue-college is clearly of great concern to middle and upper-middle class voters. In recent years, the federal and state governments have created and then liberalized the rules on tax-advantaged savings accounts, both Education IRAs and 529 plans. And the average price of tuition, which appears strikingly high when quoted out of context, masks the tremendous diversity of the collection of institutions of higher learning, which include everything from inexpensive and extremely flexible junior colleges to extremely expensive elite liberal arts schools.

Indeed, one dares say that in the higher ed market, there's something for everyone. Which is why the classrooms are full.