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The Boston Globe

Magazine

Perspective

Chopping college costs

On the fall to-do list? Finding a way to ease the burden on students.

wesley bedrosian

Fall is here. I know because “Jingle Bell Rock” has already crept onto a radio playlist or two. I’m not a fan of the season. It could be Christmas anxiety. Or maybe the persistence of fond summer memories, like being named most improved camper (though winning the title two years in a row did take the bloom off that rose). But this fall is rich with promise.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev returns to court later in September. In November, Whitey Bulger will be sentenced to die in prison, after which, his capable, purple-toenailed attorney will probably repeat what he said on conviction day, that his client is “pleased.”

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Those who prefer fictional crime will face a dilemma on a late September night: The final episode of chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin (Breaking Bad) goes head-to-head with the premiere of war-hero-turned-terrorist (Homeland). Fire up the DVR!

In Washington, the guessing game is which will come first: the House voting to repeal Obamacare for the 41st time or the 44th president pursuing further delays in his own health care law? When Boston’s dozen mayoral wannabes become two, will the majority-minority city’s voters have advanced a person of color?

And amid all that, what will returning college kids in this city and elsewhere be doing this fall? Agonizing over how to pay school bills.

At more than a trillion dollars, federal student loan debt threatens to become this decade’s mortgage crisis. And many of the 37 million borrowers are experiencing much of the same financial and psychological pain homeowners did when the housing bubble burst. Some of the borrowers are parents, calculating what part of the bill they can assume and what lifestyle and retirement changes they’ll be forced to make to accommodate the decision.

Despite the recent bipartisan orgy of self-congratulation, Congress did not fix the debt problem any more than two baby aspirin fix a migraine. It did lower the interest rate on certain subsidized student loans, but the savings on the average amount borrowed in a year will be barely $6 a month over the life of that loan. Six dollars, when the average student debt is $27,000.

The biggest problem is not the interest, anyway, but rather the tens of thousands it costs to secure a college degree in the first place. As Bill Clinton might put it, it’s the principal, stupid!

What can be done? To start with, many high-priced college administrators should become lower priced. And I’m not convinced students really need Olympic-quality gyms or haute cuisine in cafeterias. Maybe losing the pear carpaccio at Boston University or the crabmeat quiche at the University of Massachusetts Amherst could put a small dent in the $58,000 and $23,000 price tags, respectively, at those schools.

But we’re going to need larger dents.

One might come from the tech front, with the growing embrace of online courses. Still, you don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict that instead of complementing what is taught on campus, screen-learning could lead to two classes of classes — those who can afford it get the human contact, the mentoring. Those who can’t are left to log on.

President Obama, whose views probably were shaped by the college debt he and his wife paid off just five years before moving into the White House, proposed sweeping cost reforms in August. But with Capitol Hill likely to ignore them, states should be the laboratories of affordability.

Oregon’s taking the lead.

Less than two weeks before the president signed the interest rate change into law, the governor of the Beaver State signed the Pay It Forward, Pay It Back bill. The measure calls for a state commission to look into launching a pilot program in which students would pay nothing while attending public colleges. After graduation, they would remit a small, fixed percentage of their income. If you become a teacher, you’ll kick in a lot less than if you go to a hedge fund.

Barbara Dudley, the Portland State adjunct professor whose class came up with the plan, acknowledges it won’t reduce college costs. But there is huge interest, so to speak: When I talked with Dudley, she had just taken part in a conference call with participants from 14 states. Among them was Massachusetts state Representative Dan Winslow, who has filed legislation to consider the Oregon plan here.

Six years ago, a newly elected Deval Patrick went further, proposing free tuition to community colleges. That part of his cradle-to-career plan went nowhere. What did happen was this summer’s substantial increase in funding for Massachusetts public universities and colleges. That followed years of declining state support and resulted in the first tuition freeze in more than a decade. The budget hike was recognition — OK, I’ll say it — that it takes a village, not just to educate a child, but a workforce-bound young man or woman as well.

Until the day radical (though achievable) reforms get serious debate, heightened state support is surely one road to salvation for personal and public economies. College grads earn twice as much as people with just a high school diploma. And seven out of 10 Massachusetts jobs require a college degree, arguably a higher ratio than in any other state.

So, two weeks to fall. Only 107 shopping days till Christmas. What to get for the kid who has everything? The gift that keeps on giving: an affordable college education.

BY THE NUMBERS

Average student loan debt
20052012
$17,233$27,253

Jim Braude is host of Broadside: The News With Jim Braude on NECN and co-host of WGBH’s Boston Public Radio on 89.7 FM. You can follow him on Twitter @jimbraude. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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