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Guest editorial: No, the government won't get out of higher education

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So, with student-loan debts skyrocketing, why doesn't the government just get out of the business of subsidizing college students?

After all, by funneling grants and loans to students -- more loans than grants these days, but that's another editorial -- the government drives up college costs.

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Like traffic expanding to fill a new freeway, colleges grow their budgets to absorb the new dollars. So, cut off the easy money, watch the number of college students fall, then sit back and enjoy the spectacle of colleges cutting costs as well.

Great idea. Right?

Wrong -- and wrong not just in any old way, but in a bipartisan supermajority way.

Consider the histories of two GOP candidates for president, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.

Santorum vowed to cut federal funding for higher ed loan and grant programs. He called President Barack Obama a "snob" for suggesting that every American needs post-secondary education in the first place.

He suspended his campaign once he knew he'd lose in Pennsylvania, his home state.

Mitt Romney now is the presumptive Republican nominee.

And one of Romney's first moves upon securing that status was to agree with Obama on the need for low-interest student loans.

In the age of Paul Ryan budgets and tea party conservatism, why would the Republican nominee for president do such a thing?

Because Americans flat-out aren't willing to cut off low- and moderate-income students' access to higher ed.

And it's just that simple.

As conservatives rightly claim, creating "equality of opportunity" is more efficient and more in line with limited-government ideals than is demanding "equality of results." The K-12 public school system was created with "equality of opportunity" in mind.

Rich families can give their children plenty of advantages, the thinking went. But poor children deserve and should get a solid education through high school, whether or not their families can buy it for them.

In effect, federal and state college-aid programs are an extension of this pledge. No, not a full extension; public universities, unlike public high schools, charge tuition.

But the government aid helps many millions of people attend college who otherwise couldn't afford it.

And without that aid, the demographics of college would change, exactly as they do for any luxury good. On average, college would become much more a province of the rich, leaving huge numbers of the wealthy students' less fortunate fellow citizens on the outside looking in.

Ours is an imperfect system with its share of moral hazards, including the fact that it drives up college costs. But zeroing out college aid would be imperfect as well, with its own set of ugly trade-offs as mentioned above.

So far, Americans have chosen to accept some inefficiency in return for the greater "equality of opportunity" that student aid provides.

And judging by Romney's quick pledge to keep offering low-interest student loans, it's sure to stay that way.

Will the system be reformed? Yes. Will it be repealed? No.

Good.

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