The Rising Cost of College Is a Good Reason to Spread the Wealth

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

Why spread the wealth?

Today's newspapers offer a compelling answer—with stories about how difficult it's becoming for younger Americans to get a college education.

Read up, all you Obama-is-a-socialist and Joe the Plumber fans.

Two new studies show that college costs are rising in America, more students are dropping out of high school, and sizable chunks of the population can't afford postsecondary education at all. So other nations are passing us by.

"At nearly 40 percent, the United States is second only to Canada in the percentage of adults 35 to 64 with an associate's degree or higher," the Washington Post reports. "But the United States is 10th in the world in the percentage of adults 25 to 34 who have such degrees."

In other words, their young uns are getting smarter than our young uns.

A sizable portion of those who do attend college in America are saddled with burdensome loans (student borrowing has doubled in the past decade) as the part of an average family's income necessary to pay for four years at a public college has leapt from 20 to 28 percent. Even for community college, the Post notes, the share of family income needed has climbed from 20 to 25 percent.

Like all of us, in this recession, colleges need to tighten belts—and not take the easy way out and hike tuition.

But it's safe to say that stagnant middle-class incomes, and the growing income inequality in America, are a major cause of this problem. A smaller percentage of Americans, at the top of the income scale, own a bigger share of the nation's wealth, in part due to Republican tax policies that favored them during the past 25 years.

Fine. We elected those Republican presidents and Congresses. But now that the pendulum has swung too far and the Democrats propose to spread some wealth around the middle class, we're hearing hysteria about confiscatory taxation and socialism and the evil of a progressive income tax.

So let me offer this analysis.

There is nothing special or blessed about America, aside from its freedoms. Our success is not assured. Like Great Britain before us, we could slip from economic superpower to economic schmo in a historical blink of an eye.

Our ancestors had a frontier, and abundant natural resources, that served as a cushion—but these riches have been tapped out, and our international competitors are strong and many. So what's our ace in the hole?

Brains, not bloodlines.

Brains—which need to be nourished—and not bloodlines, crying to be coddled.

From Ben Franklin to John D. Rockefeller to Thomas Edison to Henry Ford to Bill Gates, the United States has smiled upon clever, ambitious nobodies with an idea and a dream. And, since World War II, to stimulate those dreams, we've made massive investments in higher education, research, and science that allowed any such bright kid, from the farm, the mines, the burbs, or the ghetto, to reap the benefits of our Stanfords, Berkeleys, UCLAs, and Caltechs.

So, ask yourself, what is more important in the current crisis? Safeguarding our new economic aristocracy? Or asking its members to kick in a bit more and maintain an economy and an educational system and the government R&D programs from which they have profited?

"The man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the state, because he derives special advantage from the mere existence of government," said a Republican president by the name of Teddy Roosevelt in similarly troubled economic times.

Roosevelt believed that federal taxes should "put a constantly increasing burden on the inheritance of those swollen fortunes, which it is certainly of no benefit to the country to perpetuate."

The American way, said TR, is to favor new blood—not old money.

We need that perpetual flow of dreamers, not oligarchs. And we need to get those dreamers into college.

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