Steve Chapman

The government normally doesn't care whether you or I accumulate large bills for home improvement, a new car or exotic vacations. But Barack Obama feels no hesitation in concluding that the cost of higher education has placed "too big a debt load on too many young people." Therefore, something must be done.

The problem with Obama's analysis is defining "too big." Compared to what? Most of these young people, often in conjunction with their parents, have voluntarily shouldered student loans to pursue their studies. If they thought the burden was too heavy, they didn't have to take it on.

They have done so not because they are careless wastrels, but because they place an accurate value on higher education. They comprehend that it is very likely to pay for itself and that forgoing it would be the most costly option of all.

The president says the debt burden makes it hard for these people "to start a family, buy a home, launch a business or save for retirement." But they would most likely have even less money for those purposes had they avoided borrowing by avoiding college.

That's because people with bachelor's degrees make more money than people without -- nearly twice as much, on average. Not only that, but the value of higher education has risen substantially. Over the past 50 years, the real value of a degree has tripled.

Some perspective is in order. Though some students acquire huge debts, two-thirds graduate owing $10,000 or less, and only 2 percent owe more than $50,000. Not all of the latter need to worry. A newly minted doctor, lawyer or MBA from a good school can expect an income more than adequate to the need.

Obama wants to let some five million borrowers cap their monthly repayments at 10 percent of their income and, after 20 years, be relieved of any remaining balance. What would the change cost? "We'll figure that out the back end," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in one of the more alarming budget projections ever issued.

The administration blames the problem on the growing cost of higher education. It has a point. College costs have risen much faster than other prices. In 1973, annual resident tuition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was $496 -- which is $2,566 in today's money. For the 2013-2014 academic year, the sticker price for U of I freshmen was $11,834 -- four times more, in real terms, than their parents might have paid.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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