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Soaring Tuition A National Scandal

Good for President Clinton. He has challenged Congress to create federal income-tax writeoffs for the cost of getting a college education. Corporations get tax writeoffs when they buy new machines. People ought to get tax writeoffs when they buy the knowledge tools needed for their own and the nation’s economic future.

Those tools are moving out of reach, for reasons that ought to be a national scandal.

Federal tax breaks can be part of the solution.

But they won’t help unless intense pressure simultaneously is brought to bear on institutions of higher learning. Pressure is warranted. Tuition has gone up at an outrageous pace. The value of a degree hasn’t. Curricula have been wandering off into useless fantasylands of political correctness. New studies show that faculty workloads are laughably low.

Clinton’s tax-break proposals, by raising the issue of education’s value, can give this matter the higher profile it deserves.

Critics point out that if Clinton’s proposals lighten the cost load on those who pay tuition, universities could treat that as an invitation to raise tuition again. (The customer has more money! Pick his pocket!) That’s why the public must take a more aggressive look at university costs and services.

Other critics complain that Clinton’s partial tax writeoffs for tuition wouldn’t help the poor, because tuition’s too high and the poor pay few if any taxes to begin with. But numerous state, federal and private sources give the poor priority in the dispensing of financial aid for college. The reform that’s needed should address a different problem - the fact that college today is most readily accessible to the very poor and the very rich. It’s people in the economic middle who are getting priced out of higher education; they aren’t poor enough to get much aid and they aren’t rich enough to afford $10,000 to $30,000 a year in college costs.

Tax writeoffs do, of course, cost money to grant. And it would be wrong for Congress to fund the tax breaks by trimming student aid for the poor. Instead, the cost ought to be borne by such potentially lucrative moves as reducing the growth rate of entitlement spending and emptying some more office buildings in Washington, D.C., of paper-shuffling bureaucrats - including those employed by the Education Department.

As a matter of national policy, it would be a worthwhile investment in the future to lower the hurdles that now loom in the path of children from average working families. The next century’s globalized, high-tech economy clearly will require the children of working families to get an advanced education in order to secure the kind of family-wage career their parents now have.

But, when today’s adults went to college, the cost was comparatively cheap. Tuition has accelerated at twice the rate of inflation (and wage growth) for the past 15 years. This is simply indefensible. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in an investigation of college costs, universities have been so insulated from accountability that basic rules of economics have not applied to them. Their tuition has gone up and up, without regard for downward cycles in student demand, in the economy, in inflation and in the quality of service delivered to undergraduates, whom research-oriented professors tend to scorn.

It’s time for things to change. Congress and the president ought to kick off the debate.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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