The rising level of student loan debt isn't the problem, it's a symptom. The real problem is the rising cost of college itself.

This should be obvious. Yet too often, the media focus on tales of student-debt woe without going on to interrogate the reasons why higher education has become so expensive, or the role played by public policy.

Students and their families are borrowing more money to pay for college because tuition has more than doubled in a generation. So, what changed between 1980, when the total average cost of a public undergraduate education was just $6,613 per year, and 2010, when it cost $14,280 per year?

The most compelling answer is that society shifted the cost burden of education from the state to the individual. In the early 1980s, state and local governments provided nearly 80 percent of public colleges' revenue, with student tuition covering the remaining 20 percent. But over the last thirty years, state lawmakers have cut higher education funding by an average $2,600 per student, per year. Not surprisingly, public colleges have responded by raising tuition by an equal amount.

Today, students pay nearly half the total cost of their education. Soon, they may pay the majority. Which begs the question: when does a “public education” cease to be public?

For more on the student loan crisis and how state budget cuts have driven the rising cost of a college education, check out “See Jane Default,” a new interactive feature