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Some common ground on student aid?

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IF ANY CONSISTENT domestic-policy theme ran through the speeches at the Democratic National Convention, it was support for federal student loans and other college tuition aid. “No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don’t have the money,” President Obama declared.

Previously, at the Republican National Convention, the emphasis had been on the downside of student debt, which now totals nearly $1 trillion nationally. “Every new college graduate thought they’d have a good job by now, a place of their own, and that they could start paying back some of their loans and build for the future,” Mitt Romney said.

The fact is, both sides have a point. Given the economic importance of a highly skilled workforce, the federal government has a role to play in promoting access to college, the cost of which has grown at public institutions by 72 percent over the past decade. At the same time, there is no point feeding more money into the system unless it enables people not just to start college but to finish it — and to acquire marketable skills in the process.

What neither side has is a clear plan for a better system. There was a partisan skirmish this year over extending the current 3.4 percent interest rate on federal loans, which had been scheduled to rise to 6.8 percent at the end of June. An extension was basically a one-year gimmick costing $6 billion in return for little additional college access. But Republicans in Congress consented, so as to avoid Democratic election-year charges of being anti-student.

As far as permanent policies go, President Obama has advocated increases in Pell Grants and extending the $2,500 college tuition tax credit that expires at the end of 2012 — both of which GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan opposed in his budget plan. At the top of the Republican ticket, Mr. Romney has published a position paper arguing that “flooding colleges with federal dollars only serves to drive tuition higher” and promising “that the federal government will no longer write a blank check to universities to reward their tuition increases.” But he doesn’t say exactly what that entails.

Vague though it may be, Mr. Romney’s position at least alludes to an area of emerging consensus. In his convention speech, Mr. Obama committed to cutting the growth in tuition by half in the next eight years; this follows up his proposal this year to tie some federal aid to college cost-containment, a proposal that was as promising as it was insufficiently detailed.

So both parties’ leaders agree that there should be some link between federal student aid and college cost-containment. Without it, the government risks repeating the tragic experience of its credit-fueled attempts at expanding homeownership. The country needs a better-prepared workforce, not a higher education “bubble.” All we need now is for the winner in November to work with the next Congress to write that concept into law.

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