Part Three of a three-part series on student debt and the middle class. Click here to read Part One and click here to read Part Two.

With the price of a college education rising three times faster than median family income and total student loan debt exceeding $1 trillion, Congress must act quickly to rein in costs if our high-skill labor market is to remain globally competitive. Already, the United States has fallen behind Canada, Japan, and South Korea in the production of college graduates; experts estimate the U.S. must increase postsecondary access and degree production by 4.2 percent annually just to catch up.

The primary obstacle is the cost: a college degree is expensive, and controlling soaring tuition rates won't be easy. State schools, which educate 75 percent of all undergraduates, including the 42 percent enrolled at community colleges, are largely dependent on government funding to subsidize what is supposed to be a public good. But when the Great Recession forced states to choose between raising taxes and slashing the budget for higher education, the majority of states chose the latter. According to the Delta Cost Project, nearly all public sector tuition increases in 2009 were the result of cost-shifting to replace declining state funding, raising troubling questions for the future sustainability of the entire public education model. At nearly every one of the 2,000 institutions surveyed in Delta's eleven-year dataset, increased revenues from student tuition were used to offset disappearing subsidies; almost none was spent on the students or the cost of their education.

Tuition costs rise as government subsidies decline

Both public and private colleges must also find ways to cut costs and increase efficiency. Because student loan money is plentiful—and often guaranteed by the federal government—schools don't necessarily have an incentive to make tough budgetary choices. Many students readily take on $20,000 or more in debt to pay for an undergraduate degree, making the demand for higher education both high and relatively inelastic (unresponsive to price increases). Research shows that private colleges in particular compete for undergraduates' dollars by overspending on luxurious athletic facilities and residential amenities, helping students relax while the interest on their loans grows higher and higher. Absent government intervention, it is not clear what might change these market forces, which are pushing colleges in the direction of rising tuition, greater inequality, less efficiency, and higher student debt.

President Obama has advanced several policies that could break that cycle. One proposal would divert federal aid from colleges that raise tuition excessively, and would include performance reviews of schools' success at enrolling and graduating low-income students, their job placement rates for recent graduates, and students' ability to repay their loans. At the same time, the president would expand funding for Federal Work Study, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, and the Perkins loan program by $10 billion, increasing the incentive for colleges to comply with the new standards. “You can’t assume you’ll just jack up tuition every single year,” Obama told a crowd at the University of Michigan in January. “If you can’t stop tuition going up, your funding from taxpayers will go down. We should push colleges to do better; we should hold them accountable if they don’t.”

Plenty of questions remain. Would the policy punish public colleges that hike tuition rates to compensate for reduced state subsidies? Could the plan end up hurting the low-income students it is designed to help, or lead to even greater disparities in quality between rich and poor institutions? It's even less clear how the private market for student lending should be reformed. Virtually unlimited private loans ensure broad access to higher education for students willing to take the risk, leaving few incentives for colleges to increase productivity and reduce costs.

The president's carrot-and-stick approach may increase experimentation and yield results. But in the short term, the fundamental question is whether the public is willing to consider increasing spending on higher education as a matter of civic duty. State tax revenues account for the majority of subsidies for the public and community colleges that educate three-fourths of all U.S. undergraduates. Until congressional legislation reforms the market for higher education, funding these programs remains the surest way for us to sustain the vibrancy of our nation's middle class and invest in its future.

College enrollment by sector and student level