President Obama's recent speech laying out a plan to rein in the rise of college costs kicks off a needed debate.
The cost of public colleges, as the president said, has risen more than 250 percent over the past three decades, while family income has risen a tiny 16 percent. His speech neglected to point out that the rise in private school tuition has been even higher.
Mr. Obama's response is to roll out a college rating system involving the number of low-income students that colleges accept, graduation rates and other details that would determine college access to federal aid by 2015.
He said the federal government would "challenge" states to increase the amount of the money they award to students.
Yet the fact is that states are hard-pressed to do so without a parallel curb on the soaring cost in the rise of medical expenses.
Health care costs have an impact on student aid because the biggest portion of state budgets go to Medicaid, the health insurance for the poor and disabled.
This was not always the case. During the 1970s and 1980s, aid to education was either the largest or second-largest expenditure in every state budget. That changed around 1990, when the cost of Medicaid displaced the aid to students. Education never gained the top spending spot again.
There's a perverse incentive for states to pour money into Medicaid rather than help students get a higher education. The more states spend on Medicaid, the more federal money they get. Yet the more states spend on giving aid to students, the less the students will get in federal dollars and tax credits.
This is a complicated conversation to have, and yet we must have it. The cost of college and the rise of student loans will hinder the entire U.S. economy unless something is done. But pointing fingers at states and colleges alone is far too simplistic.