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Editorial: Should college in America be only for the rich?

Advanced education is crucial for successful careers in the snowballing Information Age — but America’s colleges and universities, with ever-rising tuition, increasingly serve only the wealthy and affluent. That’s the view of a top Australian economist. Dr. John Quiggin wrote last month:

“The U.S. education system is now much like its health system: It does a great job for the 1 percent who go to Ivy League schools (and whose parents are mostly in or close to the top 1 percent of the income distribution), does an adequate-but-expensive job for the next 20 percent or so, and leaves everyone else in the lurch.”

America’s elite private universities serve only “around 100,000 students, about 1 percent of the eligible age cohort,” he wrote. At the other end of the spectrum, for-profit, online U.S. colleges are “little better than scams, aimed at extracting public grant money from poor students,” the economist said.

Lower-income Americans are in danger of being squeezed out of college opportunity and the middle-class future it brings. The only higher education avenue available for too many working families is for youths to incur horrendous student loans that will haunt them for decades.

President Obama and various other leaders are striving to make university education affordable for millions of left-out young people. This crusade should be supported by every conscientious American.

We know a bright maverick who was on the brink of flunking out of Nitro High School — but teachers saw his potential and booked him into West Virginia State University through a “collaborative education” plan that lets students earn both college and high school credits simultaneously. He thrived at State for two years and earned a Promise scholarship to Marshall University. Because he was born with a heart defect, the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation pays his living expenses in Huntington. He’s on track to gain a four-year university degree in just two years, with no loan debt at all.

Few students meet his special situation — but there mustbe other methods to put thousands of other working-class West Virginia youths into college without bankrupting their families. Every possibility should be pursued.

America’s future depends on producing millions of well-trained young people capable of operating the high-tech economy. It can’t be done if universities become a domain just for well-heeled families. The nation needs an intense national drive to open college opportunity for nearly everyone.

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