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Shelly: Mitt Romney's old college try doesn't cut it

Gan Golan of Los Angeles, dressed as the

Gan Golan of Los Angeles, dressed as the "Master of Degrees," holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt during Occupy D.C. activities in Washington. (Oct. 6, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

President Barack Obama has been making the rounds of college campuses, making much ado of some advice his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has been dispensing to students concerned about paying for college.

"Borrow from your parents," Romney said at one event.

Shop around, he counseled at another.

And to one student he cautioned: "Don't expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on." Nothing Romney has said is wrong. Parents with savings can be a great low-interest lending source. Students and families do have to be realistic about the price tag of the schools they choose.

But neither are Romney's prescriptions especially helpful. Most families have figured out they need to hunt for bargains, scrounge for scholarships and still borrow money from the federal government or a private lender.

Obama has the advantage in this debate because he isn't averse to proposing government help. He has initiated a tax credit for families paying tuition, an increase in Pell grants and a program that caps monthly federal student loan repayments for some borrowers.

Student debt has entered the political fray because there is so much of it. Its accumulated amount has topped $1 trillion, and stories abound of college graduates indentured by their loan payments.

But not all college debt is created equal, and not all of it is a trap.

Total student debt has mounted not so much because students are borrowing more than they did a decade ago, but because more people are going to college.

Despite the abject failure of state legislatures to uphold their commitments to public colleges and universities, the average debt of someone graduating from a four-year state school is $12,300, according to the College Board. Ten years ago it was $10,700.

A graduate with the right major should be able to find work at a salary high enough to pay off that amount fairly expeditiously. And a college graduate is expected to earn $570,000 more over the span of a working life than someone with only a high school diploma.

The race to get into expensive private colleges has played a bigger role in driving up debt. The costs of attending some of these schools is bumping up against $60,000 a year, and the average debt after four years is $18,300.

A redeeming factor is that graduation rates at private schools are higher than at public colleges and universities, and a degree in hand increases the chances of getting a decent-paying job and whittling down debt.

The biggest driver of student debt is the for-profit sector. This galaxy of universities, career colleges and technical schools educates 12 percent of students who seek education beyond high school, but it accounts for 25 percent of federal student aid. Ninety-six percent of for-profit students take out loans, and more than half of those who graduate from a four-year for-profit college owe $30,000 or more.

For-profit colleges aggressively recruit students with few resources, offer them little in the way of financial aid and too often leave them with no leg up in the job market.

Don't look to Romney for reforms. He has promoted for-profit schools at a couple of campaign stops.

Obama's administration has attempted to cut off federal grant money to for-profit schools whose students have poor records of repaying loans. Its efforts have been watered down in Congress and the courts.

But any prescription for the student debt crisis has to start with reining in the for-profit sector.

Pressure from consumers and politicians may serve to slow down the rising cost of college some. But we won't be returning to the good old days when a college degree sometimes cost less than the family car.

Practical advice, like what Romney dispensed, is fine as far as it goes. He might want to add the wisdom of investing early in college savings accounts to his list of practical suggestions.

But tough-love advice is no substitute for sound public policy. And on that front Obama is far ahead.

Writer Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at Distributed by MCT Information Services.