Student loans set off the latest Washington spitball fight. The House Republican budget called for letting interest rates double on government-subsidized student loans (and for deep cuts in Pell Grants and other student support). Students who borrow the maximum in subsidized loans would end up paying as much as $1,000 a year in added interest. Last week, President Obama sensibly called for extending the lower rate and starting stumping through colleges and talk shows to enlist students in the cause.

Republican leaders quickly calculated the perils of angering young voters. Mitt Romney flipped over to support extending the lower rates. House Republicans passed an extension, taunting the president by paying for it using a preventive health fund in the Affordable Care Act. Senate Democrats propose to pay for the extension by closing a tax dodge that doctors, lawyers and small businesses use to avoid payroll taxes. The standoff allows for what has now become the routine exchange of insults, slurs and posturing before a deal is worked out at the last possible moment.

Ignored in this is the stark reality that even with the lower rates, more and more students can’t afford the college education or advanced training that everyone except for Rick Santorum believes they need.

College costs have soared at a rate faster than health-care costs. Since 1980, the cost of living has nearly doubled; health-care costs have quadrupled, and college tuitions and fees have exploded eight times over.

This has had two major effects. As the National Commission on Adult Literacy reports, “The US is the only country among 30 OECD free-market countries where the current generation is less well educated than the previous one.” Once the leader in percentage of college graduates between the ages of 25-34, the United States has dropped to 12th out of 36 developed nations.

The second effect is ruinous debt. The average college graduate with loans now leaves college $25,000 in debt. Student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion and is now greater than credit card debt. And the debts are inescapable. Bankruptcy doesn’t extinguish them; even Social Security payments can be garnished to repay them.

These debts weigh down not only the holder but the entire economy. Students now graduate with a burden that forecloses choices. More and more are forced to return home to live. Marriage becomes less imaginable; public-interest work is less affordable. As Pam Brown, an organizer with the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, put it, “The debt makes us very individual; we can’t afford to help someone else.”

It is long past time that we debate real reform. Rep. Hansen Clarke, a Michigan Democrat, introduced a bill that would forgive up to $45,000 in student debt after a borrower makes 10 years of income-based payments (no more than 10 percent of income). A petition in support of Clarke’s bill has more than 900,000 signatures.

The Occupy Student Debt Campaign is calling for free public higher education and a write-off of existing debt. In Brown’s words: “Education is really a right, and it shouldn’t be something for Wall Street to make a lot of money off of.”

Students in California are pushing for a popular initiative on free public higher education. The draft would make four years of state university free for all full-time, in-state students who maintain at least a 2.7 grade-point average or do 70 hours of community service each year. It would pay for the lost tuition with a modest surtax on those making more than $250,000.

Making public college (or advanced training) free for all those who merit admission isn’t a radical idea. The United States led the world in making K-12 public education free. After World War II, the GI Bill provided college or advanced training for a generation of veterans. This not only avoided mass unemployment as the troops demobilized, it also provided the United States with the best educated citizenry in the world and was central to building the broad middle class that made America exceptional.

Making public colleges free would cost, it is estimated, somewhere around $30 billion a year. We could afford it. Mitt Romney’s proposal to eliminate the estate tax would cost about four times that sum and benefit only the heirs of the very wealthy. A financial transaction tax that would slow destabilizing speculation on Wall Street would raise many times that also.

Free public colleges might slow the rise of private college costs, as they would have to compete with the free offerings of public schools. More students would attend school or advanced training. The United States would gain the benefits of a better educated citizenry and workforce. Young people, not burdened by debt, could be more entrepreneurial and more public spirited.

Washington is too paralyzed by the elite fixation on austerity and too polarized by partisan divides to consider investments to create a better job market — or anything this bold. The Occupy Student Debt Campaign has it right: Reforms will come only from outside the Beltway.

Congress should act to ensure loan rates don’t double. But real reform will come only if students, parents and those who understand how student debt weighs down our recovery join together to demand it.