gua: Student loan overhaul will help improve lives

Published: Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:28 p.m.

The United States used to be among the world's leaders in educating its citizenry. After World War II, Americans completed college at higher rates than most other countries as returning soldiers used the GI bill to pay tuition.

My father was among the veterans who completed college with Uncle Sam's assistance, a beneficiary of a farsighted federal government that understood boosting college attainment was good for the country. That cohort of college boys helped to lead a prolonged period of national prosperity. They fostered educational achievement in their children, who often completed college, as well.

College assistance was also a signal accomplishment of the Eisenhower administration, which spent millions on education after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Among other things, Eisenhower created a loan program to help students pay college costs.

But somewhere along the way, the nation lost its focus on pushing educational achievement. We became complacent while developing nations rightly decided that college attainment would help them achieve economic growth. Just 39 percent of American adults have an associate's degree or higher, compared with 55 percent for Canada and 54 percent for Japan.

The United States now ranks 6th in the percentage of adults ages 18 to 24 who are enrolled in college - behind, among others, Hungary and Poland. Even worse, the U.S. ranks 15th in college completion rates - a figure that President Obama cites often and has vowed to improve.

In a speech last year, Obama called the nation's failure to boost academic acheivement a "prescription for economic decline. ... That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Congress has just made a down payment on that promise. Ammendments attached to health care legislation - and largely overshadowed by the spectacle accompanying that debate - include a student loan overhaul that will add billions in funding for Pell grants, which help pay college costs for about 6 million students.

By 1992, when former President Bill Clinton started streamlining the loan program, the federal government was spending $6 billion a year for $15 billion in loans. The new legislation completely eliminates the middleman, now freeing up $9 billion in annual subsidies for better uses.

That's change we can believe in.

Cynthia Tucker can be reached at cynthia ajc.com; follow her blog at http://blogs.ajc.com/cynthia-tucker.

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