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Kerry plays on the myth of the poor, victimized college student


WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is playing the rock star, touring college campuses on his "Change Starts With U Campus Tour 2004."

Each stop has featured performances by musicians such as alternative rock band Guster and Tom Delonge from the punk band Blink-182.

In the end, though, the tour has been about more than sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It has a more sobering message: College students are being victimized by a heartless government that makes them pay for their college education.

Though the tour features contemporary rock, its underlying message had a flavor reminiscent of Mr. Kerry's college years, when students were politically active and their hearts yearned to help the downtrodden. Of course, Mr. Kerry's updated message is that college students are the downtrodden.

At the University of New Hampshire, he said: "Here's the truth. This election is not about me. ... This election is about you. ... It's your tuition and your loans that keep rising and rising every day while this president spends all our money on tax cuts for the wealthy."

Mr. Kerry's solution? A domestic Peace Corps-like "Compact with the Next Generation," which he promises would "bring the greatest expansion of national service in history."

Of course, it's not just about selfless giving: "We'll help you pay for school, and we'll help even more if you're willing to serve your country. And together, we'll make 2004 the last year that debt and dollar signs come before degrees and dreams for the future."

To illustrate the alleged horror of the college funding situation, the Kerry campaign's Web site features figures from the nonprofit College Board's "Trends in College Pricing 2003," which notes that the average tuition at four-year public colleges has risen from $3,487 in 2000-2001 to $4,694 in 2003-2004. It's a jump Mr. Kerry attributes to the Bush administration's failure to bail out states suffering through budget crises - crises that forced states to cut public college funding.

Unfortunately, the Kerry team appears to have missed a lot of important information in the College Board's report.

For instance, the report notes that in 2002-2003, about half of all undergraduate students at public four-year colleges received grant aid - money they don't have to pay back - averaging over $2,400. It also points out that the average student at a two-year public college received grant aid that covered his or her entire tuition, and that after factoring in grants, the average net tuition and fees for a student at a four-year public institution were only $1,700. Suddenly, students' futures look a lot brighter.

In his defense, Mr. Kerry is not alone in overestimating students' woes. In unveiling in November the College Affordability and Accountability Act, their entry into this year's Higher Education Act reauthorization, Democrats on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce mentioned two powerful figures. The first is that the average graduate is leaving college roughly $17,000 in debt. A discouraging statistic, but for the second figure: Over his lifetime, that same graduate will make roughly $1 million more than he would have had he not gone to college - a $983,000 net gain.

Despite this obvious windfall, committee Democrats, as well as student activists and politicians across the country, continue to characterize the tuition increases that have raised average debt to $17,000 as "taxes on students." If so, they're the toughest taxes students will ever love.

Of course, there is no ignoring that the cost of college has gone up. But the truth is that it's taxpayers, not students, who have been picking up the majority of the college tab, and they'll be the ones who benefit when students start paying a little more.

As figures from the National Center for Education Statistics make clear, 50.4 percent of public colleges' revenue in 1999-2000 came from taxpayers, while tuition and fees furnished only 18.5 percent. (The rest comes from various sources, including endowment income and school product sales.)

And, as the College Board's report demonstrates, the bulk of that 18.5 percent is also covered by taxpayers, via government grants and subsidized loans. In fact, when it comes to college, there seems to be only one thing taxpayers can't provide: the points politicians gain by rockin' kids' votes.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst with the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.

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