Inquirer editorial: Time to graduate from college cost crisis

A graduate awaiting President Obama's speech at Rutgers' commencement in May.

Haverford College is capping student financial aid, retreating from a long-standing policy of admitting students regardless of ability to pay. The college already spends about 20 percent of its budget helping students from lower-income families, but administrators say they had to make the difficult decision to control the drain on its endowment and ensure a financially secure future.

Haverford's move, detailed by the Inquirer last week, makes it the second venerable institution in the region to undergo a major recent change in financial-aid policy. Rosemont College decided last year to adopt a truth-in-tuition policy that dramatically lowered a sticker price that few students were actually paying.

The college affordability crisis is also being felt at Temple University, which announced the departure of its provost last week and revealed that it had exceeded its financial-aid budget by $22 million.

Other colleges are cutting academic programs, and most are asking students and parents to shoulder increasing costs. These are less-than-ideal reactions to a problem that remains much discussed but largely unaddressed.

The Obama administration has been working to make community college free, crack down on unscrupulous for-profit colleges, and help students choose affordable, effective institutions with a college scorecard. But these measures tinker around the edges as college costs continue to rise at an unsustainable rate and student debt has reached $1.2 trillion, a bubble that economists say could soon burst.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has called for $350 billion in new spending over a decade to help more students afford college, financed by eliminating unspecified tax deductions for the wealthy. She also wants to make it easier for graduates to refinance debt, lower federal loan interest rates, and require more accountability from colleges and universities. Most of her plan, however, focuses on student debt rather than institutional spending. Her calls for more transparency and financial responsibility lack detail.

But Clinton's plan is vastly superior to the dearth of ideas from her likely Republican opponent, Donald Trump, who hasn't shown enough interest in the issue to produce a plan.

Tough criteria for college access to federal student loans have to be part of any effort to make higher education more affordable. Government assistance through aid and loans has to an extent enabled colleges to spend more. And some of their expenses are unrelated to the academic mission that warrants public subsidies - like Temple's proposed new football stadium and Community College of Philadelphia's plan to build dormitories. Helping more students afford college would be a far better use of funds.

Haverford's difficult decision will no doubt be echoed by other colleges at the expense of opportunities for students from low-income families as well as the social value of an economically diverse student body. And that's not the only loss it portends. Young people who can't obtain higher education or have to do so by becoming heavily indebted contribute less to the overall economy. A substantial response to the crisis has to be a priority for the next president.