COLLEGE TUITION has suddenly become a political grievance in this country. The outcry is much too fierce to be over mere money. Fundamental American ideas of fairness and social justice are now changing, and the tuition protest is an example of it. There is a relationship here to the whole of middle class tax revolt.
Until very recently it seemed to a large majority of Americans that the people with the larger income should help the others get a basic education. When only the minority went on to the college, it was aprivilege for which those families with means were very willing to pay. But now the college education is open to most students, there is the rising resentment among the middle classes that some people should have to pay the full costs when others get public help. Sometimes student from poor families get this public help to go to the very expensive universities that many middle class parents cannot afford.
Congress is now thinking about a tuition tax credit. It's a simple device, but it would also be extremely expensive. The bill before the Senate, with its $500 credit, would cost nearly $5 billion a year. Does the country want to extend the federal deficit another $5 billion? Evidently not. What, then, should the money come out of: health, or defence or pension? None of the choices seems very popular.
Now for the basic question: Does the public have an obligation to increase aid to student and their families by $5 billion? Is it an obligation with priority over any other $5 billion in the budget? It would be in an addition in the more than $15 billion already in next year's federal budget for colleges and their students. The claim is not persuasive.
The distress is greatest, obviously, among with children at expensive private institutions. While tuitions cost have risen no faster than average income over the past average decade, it is not true that most families pay tuition out of savings - and savings have been severely eroded by inflation. By next fall, a year at the average public four-year college, for residential student, will cost more than $3,000. At the average private college, it will over $5,000 and at some it will go as high as $8,000. Since the tax payers provide public colleges, it's tempting to say that there's no public obligation to help people go to the expensive private ones. But that's too easy. Most black and Mexican American families can't afford those tuitions. Public aid to students, in substantial amounts, is the price of keeping the great private universities desegregated. But that hardly answer the complaint of the parent who is not black, Spanish-speaking, or poor - or prosperous enough to pay $8,000 a year for child education.
Is there a remedy? It's certainly not the tax credit, which spread around enough money to have a serious effect on federal budget, and yet spreads it so widely that no one gets any significant help from it. Congress would be a lot wiser to stick to the present patchwork of grants and loans. It's messy, but it works fairly well. The administration's bill - belated and ineptly managed though it has been - lies in that tradition. For middle income families, those with $16,000 to $25,000 a year, it would provide benefits very similar to a $250 tax credit. This bill would cost about $1.2 billion a year, putting most of the money where the demands are now the most insistent. The effect is to shift the division of benefits upward on the income ladder, as Congress struggles to preserve a national consensus regarding fair distribution. The preliminary votes on the tuition credit suggest strongly that a slight shift, in a form or another, is now inevitable.
For the longer future, both parents and colleges are going to have to come to terms with an unpleasant truth. The prospect for any great expansion of federal aid to students is not good. The number of 19-year-old is about to begin declining. Perhaps student enrollment will remain high. But there's only because increasing numbers of adults are returning to the classroom - and adults ought to be able to pay their own way.